Finland has just become the 31st member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

This has been a long and arduous journey for a country that is not quite twice the size of Utah territorially and has a population of 5.5 million, only two million more than Utah.

This also has special meaning for me, because BYU graciously offered me leave in 2011 so that I could serve for a year as the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki, one of the most joyous years in the lives of my wife Elaine and me.

For almost 700 years, Finnish territory was under the control of Sweden, and in 1809 that territory was absorbed into the Russian empire. When the Bolsheviks took control of Russia in 1917 and created the Soviet Union, Finland immediately declared its own independence. Since then, Finland has fought to maintain its sovereignty. In the Winter War of 1939-40, Stalin’s forces invaded Finland with the Soviets suffering major casualties before eventually prevailing.

Finland officially joins NATO. What does that mean?

As World War II ended in 1945, Finland forfeited 11% of its territory to the Soviet Union, including its second most populous city. Even into the early 1950s, Soviet troops had bases west of Helsinki. Finnish colleagues told me that as youngsters they would take the train into Helsinki but were forced to lower the shades as they passed through Soviet-occupied enclaves.

Finally, the Finnish government made a huge financial payment to Moscow in return for the removal of Soviet troops. The Kremlin also tolerated Finland’s democratic system of governance but insisted that Finnish foreign policy first receive “approval” from Soviet leaders. As a result, Finland was forbidden to join the European Economic Community and NATO. This policy was widely referred to as “Finlandization,” and during the Cold War, U.S. leaders worried that Moscow would attempt to impose Finlandization on other parts of Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Finland was finally able to take control of its own foreign policy and soon became a member of the European Union.

Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia, a neighbor with 144 million people, a 1.8 trillion-dollar annual GDP, and a superpower military capacity. On the other hand, the average Finn is much more prosperous than the average Russian, with four times higher per capita income. My wife and I visited St. Petersburg, which is only a three-hour train ride from Helsinki. With the Hermitage and other notable landmarks, St. Petersburg is a “living museum.” However, it was still decades behind Helsinki in terms of efficiency and quality of services for its residents.

For six years in a row, a U.N. agency has selected the Finns as the happiest people in the world. This might seem strange when considering that 70% of Finland is composed of forests, and Nordic winters are long and harsh. However, as a good Finnish friend occasionally reminded me, “if you have the right equipment and clothing, weather is not an impediment.” The Finns adapt very well to changing circumstances, and in winter they are actively involved in outdoor pursuits.

Finland ranked the happiest country for 6th year
Finland to host 4-day master class retreat on finding happiness in life

Joining NATO was not an easy decision for Finland. It has cherished its neutrality and desired to retain cordial relations with Russia. But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine convinced most Finns it was time to join NATO, even though Moscow has threatened retaliation. Finland has a small standing army, but all men are subject to conscription and its military spending already tops two percent of GDP, fulfilling NATO’s recommendations. In an emergency, Finland can muster hundreds of thousands of troops with prior military training.

Finland is a relatively young nation-state, but Finns do not take independence for granted. Many readers are familiar with the beautiful hymn “Be Still, My Soul.” The music is composed by Jean Sibelius and the same music is used in his “Finlandia,” the country’s unofficial national anthem. When we attended Sunday services in Helsinki during independence week, “Finlandia” was sung by the local congregation. There were many tears in the audience as the beloved song extolled the virtues of freedom and peace. Finland is hoping that NATO membership will help it to maintain its hard-fought independence and cherished democratic system of government.

Earl Fry is a professor emeritus of political science at BYU and has written several books on U.S. foreign relations.