I understand Finland was part of the Russian Empire, but was it totally controlled by Russia, or did it have limited autonomy. Just curious.
Finland's foreign policy was of course controlled by Russia, but Finland enjoyed a very high level of autonomy, higher than any other part of the Russian empire. The Finns saw themselves as equals in a personal union, while the Russians took a bit different view and saw Finland as an integral part of the Russian Empire. Most visitors agreed that in this period a visit to Finland made you feel like you still were in Western Europe and not in "half-Asiatic Russia". An exception would perhaps be the forested and sparsely populated province of Karelia, the land of half-Orthodox, half-pagan runic singers, with a mystic tradition that inspired Finnish nationalism, most notably the national epic Kalevala.
When Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809, Alexander I promised to the Finnish Diet, or parliament of estates, to uphold all the laws and liberties from the Swedish era. The Emperor-Grand Duke was thus a constitutional monarch in Finland, contrary to his position in Russia. Nevertheless the Finnish parliament did not meet again untill 1863. The Russians got a lot of initial goodwill in Finland by reuniting "Old Finland": the city of Viipuri / Viborg, the Karelian Peninsula and the and the other eastern, Karelian parts of Finland which had been Russian since 1721 / 1743, to the Grand Duchy.
Since the Finns, in contrast to the Poles, the rebellious enfants terribles
of the Russian Empire, had been loyal to the Emperor-Grand Duke during the revolutionary movements of 1830, 1848 and the Crimean War, they were rewarded with the Finnish parliament finally being re-summoned and established on a regular basis in 1863, as promised in 1809.
The period untill 1898 was a period when parliamentary democracy steadily grew in Finland and the Emperor made the Finnish language equal with Swedish, in order to break some of the influence of the Swedish-speaking, liberal upper classes.
From 1899 the Russian government embarked on a very unpopular policy of Russification in Finland and Nicholas II tried to take away the Finnish parliament's power, something which made the Finns hostile to the Emperor and his government and ultimately in favour of independence. A dramatic protest against this was the assasination of the Governor-General Nikolai Bobrikov by the young suicide terrorist student Eugen Schauman in 1904. (Who, like too many modern terrorists had grown up in exodus (in Russia), dreaming passionately about liberating his Finnish fatherland from its oppressors.) When Russia finally became a constitutional government in 1906, Finland was one step ahead, making the leap from a medieval-style parliament of four estates to a modern parliament with universal suffrage, the first such in Europe.
NII's last visit to Finland was an official inspection visit to Helsinki in 1915. He was met with indifference. And the Finns greeted the Germans as liberators from the Russian yoke at the end of WW1, even going so far as to elect Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse-Cassel as "King of Finland and Karelia, Duke of Åland, Grand Duke of Lapland, Lord of Kaleva and the North"! A key figure of the Finnish independence movement in 1917 and onwards, speaker of parliament, regent and later president Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, an ally of Mannerheim, was a right-wing monarchist, but had been exiled to Siberia in 1914 for opposing Russification. When NII abdicated and was arrested, Svinhufvud allegedly "walked to the town's police station and bluntly announced, "The person who sent me here has been arrested. Now I'm going home." In Helsinki he was greeted as a national hero.
On Nicholas II's name day, the 6th of December 1917, Finland declared itself independent, for the first time in its history. But severing the links to Russia did not spare Finland from a bloody civil war, in which, unlike in Russia, the Whites, led by General Mannerheim, who once had escorted NII to his coronation, won over the Reds.Here
are details about an interesting Finnish-Russian poltical crisis involving Grand Duchess Olga Nikolayevna during the last years of the Grand Duchy!
Russian Finland was a relative success story untill Nicholas II messed up that too. (But Alexander III had started the Russification by for example Russifying the Finnish postal service. Though the story that it was prompted by a Finnish postmistress who didn't want to accept the vacationing Emperor-Grand Duke's Russian roubles, only Finnish marks, is probably not true!)
Soundtrack: The catchy March of the Björneborgians
, the Finnish equivalent of the Preobrazhensky March. Originally a rather anti-Russian piece celebrating how the Finns, abandoned by the Swedes, fought the Russians in the War of 1808-09. During those happy days when Alexander III let Europe wait while he fished on the Finnish skerries and visited his buddy the poor fisherwoman Serafina Lindblad on Högsåra, Maria Fyodorovna, who had been brought up in the era of the (for Denmark disastrous) ideas of Pan-Scandinavianism and always was the champion of the Finns, persuaded her husband to always bare his head when the Finnish national anthem was played and allow the playing of the March of the Björneborgians.