Grand Duchy of Finland as Political Space - A Conceptual History

Academy of Finland project 2019-2023


This project studies the contradictory and contested meanings of the notion of grand duchy at different turning points of the history of Finland as part of the Swedish and Russian Empires.

By examining the conceptual history of grand duchy in the context of broader patterns of change in European political language, it seeks to uncover not only peculiarities of Finnish political culture but, importantly, to make a lively contribution to the larger international discussion on the genealogy of the modern state.

Theoretical Premises

The originality of our theoretical premises arises from the intersection of research traditions deriving from the linguistic and spatial turns in the humanities and social sciences – conceptual history and the study of borders.

This will enable us to read traditional sources from a new angle of the conceptual construction of political space and to exploit the unique opportunity offered by new digitised research techniques and materials available in Finland, Sweden, and, gradually, Russia.

Using new data mining techniques, we will be able to identify exactly when and to what degree the attributes of modern state, nation, and polity have been attached to the concept of grand duchy.

Simultaneously, our analysis will uncover new dimensions of the notion of the Grand Duchy of Finland as an evolving territorial concept and expose from below how it came to form an imagined political Spielraum that offered a frame for the strategies of various groups of actors seeking to challenge or legitimise power.

Conceptual history perspective

In studying grand duchy’s changing meanings, the project draws on the tradition of conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte). Accordingly, we are not interested in finding or producing correct meanings of “grand duchy” and “state”, but rather explore the historical senses of these words and their meanings as used in debate.

New avenues of theorising territoriality and borders

Our investigation’s other main line follows the growing research agenda concerned with the production and transformation of state space. Rather than assuming that space exists independently of humans and that historical processes unfold within or are even predetermined by it, we see space as the product of human agency and perceptions tied to varying political strategies and ideological underpinnings (Gregory & Urry 1985, Agnew & Corbridge 1995).

Our key concept of political space refers to more than the institutional definition of state territory and administrative space. Instead, we understand territorialisation also as a process from below based on changing patterns of framing action and conceptualising the territorial frames of political and social mobilisation.


Our hypothesis is that the apparently unbroken continuation of dynastic tradition associated with the Grand Duchy of Finland was in fact highly politicised in a manner directly linked to new notions of representation and national or popular sovereignty. This made it possible to see grand duchy as a frame for competing strategies to make claims and challenge power.

The shifting conceptions of the Grand Duchy of Finland can reveal important new dimensions of Finland’s constitution as a polity and separate political Spielraum. We assume this was also the state of affairs elsewhere in Europe, and that our study can thus make an important contribution to the broader discussion of empires, nations, and modern politics.

Work packages

  Name Leader
WP1 Writing a conceptual history of the Grand Duchy of Finland as a critical commentary on the historiography of Finnish state-making M. Jalava, University of Turku
WP2 The territory of Finland as the estates of the Grand Duke of Finland K. Katajala, UEF
WP3 The imagined Grand Duchy J. Marjanen, University of Helsinki
WP4 The grand duchy as a frame of political mobilisation and representation from the early 19th century to 1917 J. Kurunmäki, Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden
WP5 European political concepts in the constitution of Finland as political space I. Liikanen, UEF

International partners

Name Position Expertise
Stefan Berger Professor, Institute for Social Movements (Ruhr University of Bochum) Berger is a leading expert on 19th-century nation-building within European empires.
Norbert Götz Professor, School of Historical and Contemporary Studies (Södertörn University) Professor Götz specialises in the study of conceptual history and international relations.
Marjolein ’t Hart Professor of the History of State Formation (VU University Amsterdam) Hart is the head of the history research department of Huygens Institute in The Hague and an expert on the early modern history of state formation in the global perspective.
Ruth Hemstad Associate Professor (Department of History, Oslo University) Hemstad is a specialist in the conceptual history of politics, law, and society in the Nordic countries.
Oleg Kharkhordin Professor, Head of Res Publica Centre (European University at St Petersburg) Professor Kharkhordin is a leading specialist in the conceptual history of Russian politics.
Diana Miskova Professor, Centre for Advanced Study, (Sofia) Professor Miskova is one of the leading European conceptual history scholars.
Mikko Tolonen Professor, Helsinki Centre for Digital Humanities The Centre specialises in digital analysis methods and will provide technical expertise on digital analysis methods for digitised newspaper material and elaborate calibrated working modes for each research task.
Henk te Velde Professor, Director of the research group Political Culture and National Identities (University of Leiden) Professor te Velde is an expert on the comparative study of 19th-century parliamentary politics and political language.