In search of corruption and bad governance practices: Swedish and Finnish experiences, ca 1614–1917 (CorGo)

Funded by the Academy of Finland


Principal Investigator: Prof Petri Karonen, University of Jyväskylä


Today, all of the Nordic countries are known for their high-quality administration and low levels of corruption, that is, “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Especially Finns and Swedes have a remarkably high confidence in the state as the guarantor of their security, the rule of law and welfare. This state of affairs is the starting point for this comparative project investigating the historical roots of the phenomenon. This project studies the norms, forms and the control of administrative corruption in early modern Swedish Realm (including Finland up to 1809) and the Grand Duchy of Finland from early 17th century up to early 20th century. How were the limits for corruption defined and how were malpractices prevented and repressed?

Researchers have had quite opposite views of how high-quality or respectively inefficient or corrupt Swedish and Finnish society were in the period from the 17th to the early 20th century. Opinions and interpretations have been so different that it is possible to talk about paradoxes. Moreover, no generally accepted definition of corruption exists. During the 17th century, the state paid attention to the formal competence of the local officials at the first time. One illustrative example of this phenomenon was the royal mayors, which were appointed by the King and other state authorities to almost all towns in the realm in the 17th century. The mayors practically always lived off their salaries and the formal level of the judiciary was raised as the administrative skills. At the same time, they were increasingly accused of miscarriages.

At the 18th century, the offices were defined for the first time with exact qualifications and the Swedish administration worked sufficiently. However, problems were reported on the appointment processes and especially in Finland a considerable number of the local authorities were put to the court and accused of abuse of power. Furthermore, the fact that these prosecutions could only be proved seldom can also be interpreted as equally high or low level of corruption.

In the GorGo project, we will study the changing views of good and efficient governance through its negations. We determine the changing practices of governance by examining malpractice and administrative complaints about administrative malpractices from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The illegal activities of civil servants have been addressed in various historical contexts on quite different grounds and ways.

We will examine how the requirements of the lawfulness of the activities of the public authorities – and at the same time the control of different offences – have changed in practice. What kind of corruption we are talking about when we analyze the period from the early 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century. What do the trials finally tell us: Does the number of irregularities brought to justice indicate on more effective and improved (or aspiration on improvement) of administration than the actual level of corruption of society? Was the Finnish society during the period a corrupted, and if it was, to what extent and in what ways?

This project aims to (I) recognize and identify the forms and practices of corruption in Sweden and in Finland in the long term and (II) to analyze and explain the changes and continuities. The results obtained from a geographically wide research area and versatile source material enables broader generalizations of the corruption-related mechanisms, bad governance practices and impacts of them, and long-term path dependencies, even though different operating environments and contexts are taken seriously into account in interpretations. The results will be relevant to the international research of the subject, especially on the development of methods and reliable comparable results.

The project will proceed on three interrelated levels:

1) NORMS AND STANDARDS: what was said, that is, what behavior was explicitly considered as corruption and what was not (legislation, contemporary debate)?

2) FORMS AND PRACTICES: what did public officials (at the local, mid-level and central administration) allow themselves in performing their duties in relation to state power and the subjects/ citizens (speeches for the defence, testimonies and acquittals in judicial or administrative procedures)?

3) CONTROL: PREVENTION, REACTIONS AND REPRESSION: what were ordinary people complaining about and how was corruption more or less successfully prevented or eradicated (popular complaints, court trials, the commissions, the Chancellor of Justice and the political level of “anticorruption policy”)?

Research team

PI, Professor Petri Karonen, University of Jyväskylä

Professor (emer.) Nils Erik Villstrand, Åbo Academy University

PhD, Adjunct professor Anu Koskivirta, University of Jyväskylä

PhD Antti Räihä, University of Jyväskylä

PhD Arja Rantanen, National Archives of Finland/University of Jyväskylä

MA, PhD Student Miriam Rönnqvist, Åbo Academy University/University of Konstanz (Germany)

Map: www.vanhakartta.fi