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Yrjö Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen

Yrjö Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen (formerly Georg Zacharias Forsman)
Born Vaasa December 10, 1830.  Died Helsinki November 13, 1903.

Professor of General History 1863-76, Inspector for Ostrobothnian student ‘nation’ 1868-82 (Imperial Alexander University).

Master of Arts 1853 (history)
Licentiate of Philosophy 1858 (history)
Doctor of Philosophy 1860 (history) Imperial Alexander University

Elementary school teacher 1853-54 (Turku)
Senior Secondary School teacher 1854-63 (Vaasa).
He was also chair of the Senate House Affairs Committee (1882-85) and chair of the Ecclesiastical Affairs Committee (1885-99)

Ennobled in 1884 with the name Yrjö Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen
Made a Baron in 1877

Photo: Museovirasto, Daniel Nyblin
Written by Tero Juutilainen
Translated by Kaisla Kajava. Revised by John Calton.

From nationalist to Fennoman

Georg Zacharias Forsman, as he was originally called, was brought up in a Swedish-speaking family, but studied and adopted the Finnish language at an early age, following the Snellman doctrine promoting the Finnish language. Finnish became the language of the home as well as the language of the majority of his publications. The only exceptions were a few books on the Finnish language, written for the Swedish-speaking intelligentsia. This was where he differed from Johan Ludvig Runeberg and Johan Vilhelm Snellman, who had both written in Swedish. In addition, he adopted the Finnish version of his name, Yrjö Koskinen, as his pseudonym.

Koskinen did not as such disagree with the Swedish language, but like many of his contemporaries, he recognised that Finland’s status had changed after 1809. His thinking was guided by the celebrated phrase: “svenskar äro vi inte längre, ryssar vilja vi inte bli, låt oss alltså bli finnar” (’we are no longer Swedes, Russians we do not wish to become, so let us be Finns’). According to Venla Sainio, Koskinen saw the strengthening of the status of the Finnish language as granting the Finnish population access to education and preparing the nation for independence when the time should come. This meant that the Swedish-speaking elite too would have to learn Finnish and the Finnish basic education would need to be improved. The social gap between the Swedish-speaking elite and the Finnish-speaking common people had to be effaced.

However, publishing in Finnish was not an easy task at the beginning of the 1850s owing to the political situation and the fact that Finnish was still a marginal language, at least in its written form. Yrjö Koskinen’s Finnish language doctoral dissertation, for example, generated heated discussion and much disagreement in the academic world. The subject of debate was whether Finnish was a suitable language for academic purposes. One critic of the idea demanded the work be rejected because of its language, while others admitted merely that they did not understand the language. However, the majority of the critics could see that the work was scholarly and competent, and so in 1863 when a competing applicant’s dissertation written in Swedish proved poorer in quality, Yrjö Koskinen was chosen to be Professor of General History at the Imperial Alexander University.

At that time history as a subject was divided into two parts. Yrjö Koskinen had expressly wished to specialise in Finnish, Russian and Scandinavian history, but Zacharias Topelius was invited to take up the academic chair even though he hadn’t been a candidate. Koskinen took up the chair only after Topelius’s retirement. A similar language debate arose when electing a successor to Topelius. On that occasion the candidates too were Fennomans– Koskinen’s student J.R. Danielson-Kalmari and the Swedish-speaking M.G. Schybergson.

Yrjö Koskinen’s thinking was not only manifest in his decision to write in Finnish but also in his choice of subjects. He had been appointed Professor of General History but he wrote entirely about Finnish history. Even before the professorship, he had researched the ‘Cudgel War’. Yrjö Koskinen requested for a leave of absence in 1869 in order to work on his book Oppikirja Suomen kansan historiassa (’A textbook of Finnish history’). The publication of the book resulted in ”fierce storms”, as Rafael Koskimies put it. The reason was not the language this time, but the arguments, which critiqued the period of Swedish rule, especially the more recent centuries, and claimed that Finland’s history had been distinct from Sweden’s from as early as the 13th and 14th centuries. Yrjö Koskinen’s cousin, C.G. Estlander, for example, criticised this argument because, in his view, Finland had no independent history before the year 1809.

In addition to improving the status of Finnish, Koskinen believed in the importance of creating a Finnish-speaking intelligentsia. Chief among his demands were that teaching be done in Finnish from the outset of schooling and for more schools to be founded. After completing his Master’s thesis, and whilst pondering whether he wanted to pursue an academic career, Forsman had worked as a schoolteacher and librarian, so he was familiar with the school world from a professional point of view. And he was handed the opportunity to make a difference: the governor-general, F.L. Heiden, appointed him chairman of the Senate committee of ways and means in 1882 and in 1885 chair of the ecclesiastical affairs committee with the responsibility for educational matters. During the fifteen years he was in charge of the ecclesiastical affairs committee, the number of schools, including Finnish-medium ones, increased significantly. It was partly owing to Yrjö Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen that Finnish speakers could now receive education in their mother tongue, all the way from primary school through to university.

Photo: Helsingin yliopistomuseo​​


  • Rafael Koskimies, ”Nuijamieheksi luotu. Yrjö Koskisen elämä ja toiminta vuosina 1860–1882.” (’Born to be a cudgelman. The life and times of Yrjö Koskinen, 1860-82’). Published by Otava: Keuruu, 1968. (In Finnish)
  • Venla Sainio, ’Yrjö-Koskinen, Georg Zacharias’. National Biography of Finland online. Accessed 15.11.2014.
  • Wikipedia, ”Yrjö Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen”. Accessed 15.11.2014.
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