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A northern paradox: how Finland survived the Cold War.

AFTER the event the debates and the soul-searching begin in earnest. This is the situation in many countries now that the sharp division of Europe into Soviet and Western spheres is receding into the past. There is a strong urge to assess, to re-assess and to understand that period which is loosely called the Cold War, partly, perhaps, because many of the high hopes of 1989 remain frustrated and unfulfilled.

No country is re-examining its history with more painful thoroughness than Finland, which in itself is no doubt a sign of intellectual and moral health within Finnish society. For those with a lifelong interest in Finnish literature and culture like myself, it is a subject of prime importance, for literature and political issues have been so intimately connected in Finland since the 19th century that it is difficult for English-speaking people to comprehend so vital and organic a link. Yet an understanding of post-war Finnish history is also, I believe, crucial to any proper appreciation of the four decades which followed the Second World War in Europe, in a way which is quite out of proportion to Finland's size or the direct influence it has exerted on European affairs. This is because Finland is one of those borderline and borderland countries where rival empires, rival cultures and rival social systems grind against each other like the great tectonic plates which underlie the continents themselves. Much of what was essentially Eastern and essentially Western in the divided Europe of 1945-1989 is illuminated by the fortunes of this small northern country.

For many years there have been two differing and contradictory accounts of Finland's place in Europe and of its relationship to the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1989. According to the first account the Second World War left Finland completely at the mercy of the Soviet Union, but for a variety of reasons, some of them pragmatic, some of them enigmatic, the Russians allowed the Finns to retain their Nordic parliamentary system, but behind the scenes they exerted complete control over the Finnish government, while the Finns in the interests of their survival could only respond with docile compliance. To describe this arrangement the term finlandisation, often used as a term of political abuse, was invented, and at various times hopes were expressed that Eastern Europe might be finlandised instead of being kept under more rigid forms of Soviet control, while fears were voiced that Western Europe would be finlandised if vigilance was relaxed. Even so distinguished a historian as Walter Laqueur(1) leans rather uncritically towards this view of Finland, while Henry M. Pachter(2) insists upon it in statements which are vehement and inaccurate. The finlandisation idea is also the accepted wisdom among serious political journalists(3) and has become the prevailing view of some Finnish historians who now write in a fierce spirit of national self-condemnation.(4)

The other account of Finland's position presents the country as a heroic small nation which, by prolonged struggle with its huge neighbour asserted the right to remain a neutral Scandinavian democracy and maintained that status by the skill and statesmanlike wisdom of the three Finnish presidents since 1944, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, Juho Paasikivi and Urho Kekkonen, men who retained their calm and courtesy even in the face of occasional outbursts of Soviet bullying, bad manners and interfering pressure. According to this account the concept of finlandisation is an invention of those who do not understand Finland's history or are jealous of the Finns' success in living peacefully beside a superpower, or both. This view of Finland is the one favoured by many travel writers and most guidebooks, starting with the works of Wendy Hall and Sylvie Nickels and is presented even in so sensitive an account of the country as Fred Singleton's.(5) It is also the view contained, either by statement or by implication throughout the writings of Finland's longest serving president Urho Kekkonen(6) and was insisted on rather simplistically by some Finnish historians during the 1960s and 1970s.(7) Both these accounts contain a measure of truth. but neither of them accurately conveys the complex nature of Finnish history since 1945, or of the relationship of the Finns to the Soviet Union. One of the few books which deal well with Finnish complexities is Donald S. Connery's The Scandinavians though many of its passages have dated badly. Connery devotes a good deal of space to Kekkonen and offers some priceless insights.(8)

Finland, inhabited by tribes which had migrated from somewhere near the Ural mountains, speaking a non-Indo-European language, was conquered by Sweden in the 12th century A.D. and ruled as part of the Swedish kingdom until 1809, becoming during these centuries part of Scandinavia and the wider North Atlantic culture. That culture had produced the Icelandic Republic in the 10th century A.D. and the rule of law, representative democracy, a measure of liberty and an egalitarian outlook as well as considerable social emancipation for women were in theory and ideal, and sometimes in practice persistent, if not always predominant features of it. After Finland was ceded to Russia in 1809, the more enlightened Russian rulers largely refrained from trying to absorb a nation with such strong Western affinities into the Tsarist Empire, and Finland enjoyed semi-independence for long periods. A ruthlessly oppressive period followed in the first years of the 20th century and again in the years just before the First World War, during which the Russian government attempted to remove all traces of a separate nationhood in Finland. During a more hopeful time, in 1906, the Finns became the first nation in Europe to give women the vote.

After the collapse of Tsarism, Finland declared its independence on December 6, 1917. Lenin's main purpose in making the Bolshevik revolution was to ignite other revolutions across Europe. The Finnish Bolsheviks attempted to seize power acting in alliance with pro-Bolshevik units of the Russian army still in Finland. Because of this military presence and a common border with Russia there was every chance that the seizure of power would succeed. It was, however, successfully opposed by that remarkable leader Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1867-1951), a Swedo-Finnish aristocrat, who had already had a long and distinguished career in the Imperial Russian army before resigning his position. It was Mannerheim who created a Finnish army from scratch in 1918 and defeated the Red Guards in a four month civil war. Unfortunately, Mannerheim's opponents were not only the Bolsheviks and the pro-Bolshevik Russian soldiers. Industrialisation had created sharp divisions in Finnish society making a class confrontation incipient in the country's affairs. Whereas Mannerheim led a coalition of bourgeois parliamentary forces and peasant farmers, the Red Guards drew, almost inevitably, the Social Democrat party and the labour movement generally to their side in the struggle.

In Helsinki today there is a huge equestrian statue of Mannerheim, very much resembling the equestrian statues of Franco which still stand in Ferrol and Santander in Spain. It is useful to compare Mannerheim with Franco, for the comparison illustrates how irrevocably Finland had become part of Scandinavia. Mannerheim always spoke and acted as the servant of elected politicians, even when his power was unchallengeable. His authority -- in his own eyes and in those of his followers -- rested on his defence of the Finnish parliament against an illegal seizure of power.(9) He opposed the involvement of German troops in the Finnish civil war, as well as the aspirations of monarchists in Finland to install a German prince as king, finally resigning his position over these issues and leaving for Sweden only weeks after leading a victory parade into Helsinki.

When Germany was defeated in the First World War, Mannerheim became Regent of Finland and stood as a candidate for president under the new republican constitution in 1919. He was defeated by K. J. Stahlberg and duly retired into private life. (This constitution was in fact an attempt to combine a strong executive presidency with a Nordic parliamentary system. It carries within itself a tendency for long periods of presidential office. The president was in fact chosen for a six-year term by an electoral college chosen by the people, a process which favours pacts, alliances and deals which increase the likelihood of re-election. This method endured until February 1988, when a change to popular direct vote was effected, the college only convening in the event of no candidate securing an absolute majority. The stability of the presidency tends to balance the power of parliament in which no party has been able to win an overall majority, a situation which leads, of course, to brief coalition governments.) When, in the early 1930s, after a decade of democratic rule which included Social Democrat led governments, the fascist Lapua movement arose in Finland, Mannerheim was initially sympathetic to it because it drew much of its support from the peasant farmers who had made up his army in 1918 and because it was anti-Bolshevik. Yet he condemned the fascists when they used kidnapping and similar tactics to overthrow the parliamentary system itself. Mannerheim was far less conservative and far more enlightened and humane than he is usually portrayed and was never in his long career either a fascist or a protofascist. He pointed out that the judicial persecution of Bolshevik sympathisers for their beliefs would undermine the basis of Finnish democracy.

Fascism failed in Finland, despite its successes in Europe, although Finland was a country which actually did face a Bolshevik threat and which had an indigenous romantic-authoritarian nationalist movement which celebrated ancient Finnish traditions and which long pre-dated fascism. That no fascist takeover actually occurred is, as Martin Seymour-Smith calls it in his account of Finnish literature, 'one of the most remarkable political facts of the century' -- a fact which indicates how deeply embedded and resilient libertarianism and individualism has been in Finland.(10)

The country was drawn into the Second World War by Stalin's demands for territorial concessions which would make the strategic position of Leningrad more secure. The Nazi-Soviet Pact had placed Finland in the Soviet sphere of influence along with the Baltic States. It has often been said that Stalin's intentions were only strategic ones and the obstinate refusal of the Finns to give up small areas of territory in exchange for other land was viewed with frustration and bewilderment in Moscow. However, the suspicions of the previous twenty years and indeed of the previous century coloured the Finns' judgement, though Mannerheim continually urged a more courteous negotiating stance instead of the peremptory briskness of the Finnish government. Certainly, after the Finns were eventually defeated in the fierce fifteen-week Winter War of 1939-40, an extraordinary episode of national resistance, one of the most genuinely heroic national struggles of the century, during which the massively outnumbered Finnish army held back a Soviet invasion, Stalin planned to absorb Finland into the USSR, just as he had done with the Baltic States, rather than abide by the terms of the March 1940 peace treaty -- something which Molotov made clear to Hitler in Berlin in the November of that year.(11)

Threatened with the loss of its independence, Finland allowed Germany to transport troops across its territory as the Germans moved towards a final confrontation with the USSR. Immediately after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviet air force bombed Finland which finally decided the question of whether Finland should go to war for a second time with the USSR in order to regain its lost territory. Typically, there was no formal alliance with the Third Reich and Finland remained a liberal democracy, partly because of the respect which Mannerheim inspired in the Germans, Hitler included, partly because the Germans considered Finnish soldiers their military equals, a view which the Finns shared. An attempt by the Germans to induce the Finns to deport over 2,000 Jewish refugees in Finland to the extermination camps led to such a public outcry in Finland that the matter was dropped and the refugees remained.(12)

With the imminent defeat of Germany in 1944, parliament passed a special law making Mannerheim president and an armistice was negotiated with the Soviet Union. There were large territorial losses to the USSR and more ominously, the leasing of the Porkkala base to the Russians for fifty years, as well as crippling reparations and the demand that those responsible for the Continuation War of 1941 to 1944 should be prosecuted -- this included several liberal politicians and even civil servants. Thus at the end of the Second World War, Finland was not an occupied country, but it held on to its independence very tenuously and its position was extremely precarious. Over the next ten years, the Finns gradually extricated themselves from this frightening position, a policy which was largely shaped by J. K. Paasikivi who succeeded Mannerheim as president in 1946. It was widely expected that Finland would fall under complete Soviet domination with a communist regime in Helsinki, this, however did not happen, partly perhaps, because Stalin knew how difficult the Finns had been to absorb even in Tsarist times, a lesson which had been sharpened by the experiences of the Second World War. An attempt to take over Finland would have probably led to a protracted guerrilla war in the sparsely populated and densely forested Finnish countryside, a war which would have erupted into another European war right on the borders of the Soviet Union, given Western sympathy for the Finns and the opportunity such a conflict would have presented to the West to destabilise the Soviet Union. Once again, because of the depth of the Scandinavian tradition in Finland the country proved highly resistant to totalitarianism and authoritarian rule.

The situation within Finland was of course extremely complicated. It was quite common for a Karelian farmer who had fought against Mannerheim in 1918 to find himself dispossessed of his land in 1940 when a large part of Karelia was ceded to Stalin, and then, as almost all Karelians did, to go as a refugee to Finland rather than live on Soviet territory and join the Finnish army and fight the USSR between 1941 and 1944, only to vote for the communists at every election after the war. The Communist Party had been banned in 1930 and was legalised in 1944, but it fought elections only as part of the People's Democratic League, which included left wing Social Democrats, basing its appeal on social grievances and the championing of the most impoverished sections of society. Also, both Moscow and the Finnish Communist Party were extremely deferential to Mannerheim and there was never any suggestion of prosecuting him.

An Allied Control Commission dominated by Soviet officers, often threatening in their attitude, remained in Finland until 1947 to oversee the fulfillment of the 1944 armistice. Those who had been prosecuted for their involvement in the Continuation War had been tried by a Finnish court and sentenced to terms of imprisonment, the longest sentence being passed on ex-president Ryti who was given ten years -- he was however pardoned and released after five years, while another of them, Vaino Tanner wrote his memoirs in prison and was re-elected to parliament after his release.

The year 1948 was crucial to Finland's fate. In February of that year, a communist government took over in Czechoslovakia, which had been regarded as a country likely to retain its multi-party system within the Soviet sphere because of its strong Western affinities. Only three days after these events in Prague, President Paasikivi received a letter from Stalin proposing that Finland should sign a mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union similar to those which Stalin had signed with Hungary and Romania. The Finns countered with their own proposals for a much more modified treaty and the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance signed on April 6 was significantly different from the treaties which the USSR had signed with its Eastern neighbours. The treaty only committed the Finns to repel an attack made on the Soviet Union by Germany through Finnish territory and did not involve Finland militarily in other ways. During the same period, in the Spring of 1948, the Finnish parliament passed a motion of no confidence in the communist Minister of the Interior, Yrjo Leino, because a commission of enquiry had found that he had abused his authority. Paasikivi dismissed Leino and called a general election in which the electorate reduced the representation of the People's Democratic League from 49 seats to 38. The League did not hold office in a coalition government again until 1966. The war reparations to the USSR were paid off by 1952 and in 1955, Finland joined the UN and the Nordic Council. In that year the Soviet government gave up the military based at Porkkala near Helsinki though the mutual assistance treaty was extended for a further twenty years.

By 1956 therefore, when Paasikivi retired and Kekkonen was first elected president, Finland had been at peace with the USSR for twelve years, and for nine of these the Soviet Union had been under Stalin's rule. During these years, Finland had moved from defeat, devastation and a fragile, compromised independence, with a Soviet base on Finnish soil, to a firmly asserted identity as a liberal Nordic democracy and a non-aligned country, despite the consolidation of the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe and some of the worst periods of East-West confrontation.

Urho Kekkonen was elected to the presidency in 1956, defeating K. A. Fagerholm by only two votes in the electoral college. During his first term of office there were two crises in Finnish-Soviet relations. In 1958 the Soviet Union withdrew its ambassador and suspended trade when Kekkonen appointed a Social Democrat led government. Soviet anger was due partly to the fact that the Social Democrats had elected Vaino Tanner as their chairman, a politician who had been intensely hated in Soviet circles since 1918. Partly, it was due to the intense suspicion of a regenerated Germany which beset the Soviet leaders in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- perception of German strength being always crucial in Finnish-Soviet relations. The Soviet policy on Austria, by which it had been allowed to become a neutral country had been an attempt to dissuade West Germany from joining NATO, just as the formation of the Warsaw Pact had been a response to German NATO membership. For the Finns, the Cold War was not a journalistic phrase but a reality, with Finland a front-line state. Kekkonen's own Agrarian Party withdrew from the coalition government which was then re-constituted. It is often said that the Social Democrats were vetoed or blacklisted as partners in government between 1958 and 1966. Yet apart from the consideration that in war conditions countries often install governments which are carefully selected and which would not rule in peacetime, what is usually forgotten is that the Finnish president has the power to appoint the Cabinet and to dissolve parliament and call new elections and, since no party has an overall majority, the president has no automatic obligation to include the members of any specific party in the government. What is also often overlooked is that the communists were excluded from coalition governments in this period and that Kekkonen, despite the Cabinet he appointed in 1958, had no reason to favour the Social Democrats under their pre-1966 leadership, quite apart from questions of foreign policy.

In October 1961 when Kekkonen was in Hawaii on a state visit to the USA, the Soviet Union alarmed by West German participation in a new NATO Baltic Command, in a situation of severe tension between the superpowers, suggested talks on the clause in the Finno-Soviet treaty which referred to defence of Finnish territory against a German attack on the USSR. A few weeks later, the American trip completed, and at an extraordinarily leisurely pace, Kekkonen visited the Soviet Union and after rather brief talks Khruschev dropped the matter. However, the Social Democrat candidate for the 1962 presidential election withdrew. War conditions had once again overtaken the democratic process and they certainly benefited Kekkonen's own career. It has even been suggested that Kekkonen instigated the call for military consultations by the Soviets.

Yet it was in the 1960s that the term finlandisation and the notion itself was first used to describe Finnish affairs. The term originated in Germany, probably invented by Professor Richard Lowenthau of the Free University of Berlin, and when it gained wide currency it was used to describe Finland in the 1960s and 1970s. As Olli Kivinen asks in a recent article,(13) how can one explain the paradox of how in the '60s and '70s, a much less dangerous and volatile period in international relations than the decade after the Second World War or the period of greatest East-West hostility of c.1957 to c.1964, did Soviet influence over Finland seem to increase? If the Finns were really unable to resist the power of their vast eastern neighbour and could only comply with covertly exercised control from Moscow, how was it that the ageing, moribund, cautious Soviet leadership of the '60s and '70s gained such control when Stalin, Molotov and Beria had failed to subjugate the Finns at a time when the USSR was everywhere expanding its sphere of influence? It is in the answer to this question that an adequate explanation of recent Finnish history surely lies.

When one considers the dominating presence of Kekkonen over twenty-five years (a recent article in the journal Books From Finland was entitled Towards Monarchy? The Beatification of Urho Kekkonen(14)) it is clear that if one fails to look at Kekkonen's role and character when trying to understand Finnish affairs, one overlooks the obvious by putting the Soviet Union at the centre of the stage in the habitual fashion of Western observers looking at everything beyond the borders of NATO in the years before 1989. It was Kekkonen who ruled Finland for a quarter of a century of consecutive presidential terms (his penultimate term was extended by a special law passed in parliament, reminiscent of the law which appointed Mannerheim president in 1944) until his retirement due to ill health in 1981 and during this time he hectored his countrymen' as Geoffrey Smith(15) puts it, on the need for friendly relations with the Soviet Union and the need to avoid disturbing the Finnish-Soviet relationship. 'Hectored' is a fair word, given the tone of many of Kekkonen's speeches.(16) Donald S. Connery's portrait of Kekkonen is an important one(17) and the account given of him by Connery, based on Finnish sources, contrasts him with Paasikivi, who was a statesman, identifying with the broader interests of the nation state, whereas Kekkonen was a political partisan and a personally ambitious politician. Kekkonen exploited the need for friendly co-existence with the USSR to enhance his own fortunes just as some Conservative and Republican politicians in Britain and America exploited the idea of the Soviet threat to Western freedom to enhance theirs.

After the crises of 1958 and 1961 and his own successful handling of them, Kekkonen increasingly represented himself as the only person who could conduct a successful policy of friendliness towards the USSR and preserve Finland's neutrality and independence. Kekkonen was not the agent of sinister manipulation by the Soviet Union, manipulation which Finland had showed itself capable of resisting in the decades after the Second World War, but a skilful Finnish politician who used a policy of close friendship with the Soviet Union for his own personal advantage -- a very different matter. Those opponents of Kekkonen who insisted that his closeness to the Soviet leaders was not necessary to Finland's survival were quite right. Within the necessary framework of neutrality, Kekkonen's approach was only one of a number of possible policies. What many Western observers failed to grasp was that Kekkonen used the Soviet Union far more than it used him. He was also a dominating, egocentric, controversial, ruthless, opinionated leader, rather in the mould of De Gaulle or Tito. The overwhelming impression which a detailed consideration of the Kekkonen years gives is of a powerful personality creating a cult of his own vision and role and pursuing what is useful to himself, for in these years he gathered around him a semi-official ruling elite as well as imprinting his personal style and values on national life.

It is sometimes pointed out that anti-Soviet books, articles and films were discouraged and even on occasions suppressed in Finland during the Kekkonen period. Yet this was a consequence of the authoritarian and conformist tendencies of all governments. In Britain during a liberal era The War Game, a film on nuclear war was banned for twenty years. while more recent developments such as the banning of the BBC Real Lives programme At the Edge of the Union in 1985, should remind us that a government with a strong ideological programme, dominated by a determined leader affects freedom of expression and the free flow of ideas in other countries besides Finland.(18)

Mauno Koivisto, the Social Democrat who succeeded Kekkonen scaled down the constitutional role of the presidency and moved away from close friendship with the Soviet Union in the years before it collapsed. Recently of course, Finland has abandoned its neutrality and formally applied for membership of the European Community. Kekkonen remained committed to Finland's existence as a Scandinavian society and a non-aligned country. He once said that even if every country in Europe became a communist state Finland would remain a Nordic democracy.(19) It should be remembered that during Kekkonen's period of office Finland attained a higher level of civil liberty and respect for human rights than almost any country in the world(20) and that the extensive trade with the Soviet Union and the low military spending which went with Kekkonen's foreign policy contributed to Finland's prosperity and affluence.(21)

The concept of finlandisation does not therefore really stand up to examination. What we have instead is a paradox, a most illuminating paradox for those who wish to acquire a rounded view of European history. Finland resisted being absorbed first by Russia, then by the USSR partly because of the strength of its Scandinavian democratic tradition. Yet that tradition produced the multi-party system and also produced Kekkonen, the ambitious politician who pursued a policy of using Moscow for his own ends, a policy much criticised because it brought Finland into too close a co-operation with a totalitarian and anti-democratic regime. Perhaps the last word should be left to Kekkonen himself: 'The present international situation has features that perhaps could best be explained or at least analysed by way of paradox'.(22)


1. Europe in Our Time, a History 1945-92 by Walter Laqueur, 1992.

2. The Fall and Rise of Europe by Henry M. Pachter, 1975.

3. Geoffrey Smith. 'Still a Bear-Hug, but not quite so tight', Sunday Times, February 15, 1983, is representative of this view. This is a useful article, particularly in its summary of the Kekkonen period.

4. Kansakunta rahmallaan. Suomettumisen lyhyt historia (A nation flat on its face. A short history of finlandisation), (Helsinki, 1991), is a key text in this new appraisal. Another important book is Vallan vaihto (Change of Power) by Max Jakobson (Helsinki, 1992). Timo Vihavainen's A nation flat on its face is more strikingly radical however.

5. Green Gold and Granite by Wendy Hall, 1959 and The Young Traveller in Finland by Sylvie Nickels, 1962 are excellent in themselves as travel books. A Short History of Finland by Fred Singleton, 1989, is a vivid account.

6. Neutrality: The Finnish Position by Dr. Urho Kekkonen, 1970.

7. Sixty Years Independent Finland by Matti Klinge, 1977, for example, as well as some of the earlier articles by Vihavainen, (see 4 above).

8. The Scandinavians by Donald S. Connery, 1966.

9. The two most incisive accounts of this complicated conflict are The White Generals by Richard Luckett, 1971 & 1987, and Mannerheim: Marshal of Finland, 1986.

10. Guide to Modern World Literature by Martin Seymour-Smith, 1984.

11. See Mannerheim: Marshal of Finland by Stig Jagerskiold, 1986. (As 9 above).

12. See The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy by Martin Gilbert, 1986 and The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 by Lucy Dawidowicz, 1975.

13. Cold War Perspectives by Olli Kivinen, Books From Finland 4/1992 reviewing Max Jakobson's recent book (see 4 above). Kivinen points out that Jakobson's analysis is blunted by excessive respect for Kekkonen.

14. Books From Finland 1/1991.

15. 'Still a Bear-Hug, but not quite so tight' by Geoffrey Smith (see 3 above).

16. Neutrality: The Finnish Position (see 6 above).

17. The Scandinavians (see 8 above).

18. On Censorship (The Welsh Union of Writers, 1986).

19. Neutrality: The Finnish Position (see 6 above). Kekkonen said this in a speech in Khruschev's presence in Helsinki in 1960 at a birthday lunch given for the Finnish president.

20. Human Rights: A World Guide, 1986.

21. An interesting account appeared in Newsweek, Nov. 6, 1989, when Gorbachev visited Helsinki, at this time the trade boom was still in full swing. The article was entitled The Plump 'Red Cushion'. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union Finnish-Soviet trade cushioned Finland from the worst effects of recession in Western Europe.

22. Neutrality: The Finnish Position (see 6 above). The remark was made in a speech in Washington in 1961, ironically not long before the 'note crisis' over suggested military consultations.

|Anthony James is a Welsh poet and essayist who also translates Finnish literature.~
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Author:James, Anthony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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