Finland during the period 1945 to 1989

Dealing with its post-war past has been especially fraught for Finland. Unlike almost every other country in Europe, in the ‘us and them’ world of the Cold War it was never exactly clear where Finland stood. Though this small, peripheral nation protested ‘neutrality,’ during the 1960s and 1970s it appeared to be so compliant with the Soviet Union as to be independent only on paper.

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finnish historians found themselves liberated. After the censorship of the Cold War era – when criticising the Soviet Union or Finland’s stance towards it could get you ostracised or even prosecuted – they could finally start to explore the period with a critical eye. This led to an impassioned debate over Finland’s Cold War.

Finland was ruled by Sweden until 1809 and then by the Russians before independence in 1917. A Romantic Finnish-nationalist movement, popular among both the peasantry and the elite, developed under Russian rule. With independence came civil war, portrayed by the ‘White’ victors as a battle for independence from the Soviet Union, with the enemy ‘Reds’ (mainly the industrial working-class) accused of seeking to make Finland part of the USSR. A dominant narrative was born. Finland had struggled to be free of Russian oppression to become an independent nation. Up until the Second World War nationalist movements, such as the Academic Karelia Society (which advocated a ‘Greater Finland’ encompassing all the areas, including those of the USSR, where Finnic languages were spoken and of which the future president Urho Kekkonen was a member), were influential among the Finnish elite.

But everything changed when war broke out. In 1939 the Soviet Union demanded that Finland give-up parts of Lapland and Karelia. When it refused, the Soviets invaded and, in what became known as the ‘Winter War’, the Finns, hugely outnumbered, held out for longer than expected. Ultimately they lost and were forced in early 1940 to evacuate 10 per cent of their population, but in the Continuation War (1941-44) they took the land back before losing it again and having to pay the Soviet Union substantial reparations.

Finland’s postwar policy became one of appeasement. The Paasikivi-Kekkonen line, as it was named after the two successive presidents who pursued it, sought cooperation with their giant neighbour while also working with the West. Narratives of the period stressed that Finland was ‘neither Eastern nor Western’ or that it was ‘partially Eastern’. The Academic Karelia Society was banned as ‘Fascist’. In Kekkonen’s words, ‘we see ourselves as physicians, able to stand objectively outside historical conflicts and offer sage advice to both sides.’ But it was under his presidency (1956-81) as leader of the Agrarian League (later the Centre Party) that the ‘official history’ began to mutate: Russia was a historical friend of the Finns; independence in 1917 became seen as a gift from Lenin; Finland had provoked the Winter War with its nationalist bellicosity; Kekkonen, having earned the trust of the Soviet Union, must remain in power or Finland would risk falling out of favour and losing its independence. The country was now seen as so co-operative with its neighbour as no longer to be independent. In 1961, a West German academic termed this submissive condition ‘Finlandisation’. Elements of it appear deep-rooted: in 2006, a Green Party MP was reprimanded by the speaker of parliament for criticising democracy in Putin’s Russia.

The historian Seppo Hentilä, writing in 2008, argued that the Cold War era was a ‘wound in Finland that is yet to heal’. Had an international crisis taken place during that time, he argues, the country would have been squarely under Soviet influence in terms of its response. Though Finland remained a multi-party democracy, by the 1970s, Kekkonen’s power over the media and parliament was so tight that the reality of its democracy was called into question in the West. In many cases national policy was agreed with Moscow before being implemented. In 1973 Leonid Brehznev quipped: ‘Finland is in the back pocket of the Soviet Union’.

Some historians – and many ordinary Finns – still adhere to the idea that, to preserve its independence, Finland had little choice but to bow to the Soviet Union and doing so was just shrewd policy. On the Finnish promotional website Virtual Finland assorted historians subscribe to this view, even if it is quite different from what they write for a native audience. In a 2001 article Timo Vihavainen referred to Kekkonen’s policy as a ‘clever initiative’ that left Finns ‘freer to develop relations with the West’. Rather than see Kekkonen’s use in 1973 of an Emergency Law to keep himself in power as evidence that the country was undemocratic, Vihavainen refers to it as ‘probably a unique peacetime occurrence in a Western democracy’. The abuses of the period are not discussed. They include heavy censorship (almost 2,000 books were banned), the return of Soviet dissidents to the Soviet Union and the public denunciation of journalists critical of Kekkonen. Yet in a 1992 Finnish-language publication, Vihavainen described Cold War Finland as ‘grovelling on its stomach’.

Today, there remains mild nostalgia for the Kekkonen era: T-shirts emblazoned with his image are on sale and recently a cartoon book Kekkonen was published for children. But there are those who have been deeply critical of his leadership. In 1991 the law professor, Antero Jyränki, wrote: ‘At some point Finland succumbed to full monarchism. Only in monarchies does the ruler have his picture on the notes and the coins.’ The following year, the conservative politician Risto Pentillä accused Kekkonen of creating an ‘official religion’ of Soviet kowtowing during the 1970s: ‘His powers resembled those of an old-fashioned monarch.’

The ‘note crisis’, a notorious episode of 1961, is revealing. It looked as if Kekkonen might lose the presidential election to the conservative Olavi Honka. The USSR sent a ‘note’ referring to the threat of war, possibly because they wanted Kekkonen re-elected. Kekkonen went to the USSR to sort it out. Subsequently Honka withdrew and Kekkonen was re-elected with an overwhelming majority. Some believe that Kekkonen engineered the crisis to ensure his re-election. In 1973, he used an emergency law to gain support – implying that, if he were not re-elected, the Soviets would oppose Finnish membership of the EEC – so that he could continue as president without an election. These facts are all used to substantiate the argument that Kekkonen took hold of Finland, stripped it of its ‘true democracy’ and made a ‘Faustian pact’ with the Soviet Union. According to this reading, therefore, he is the ‘devil’. Finlandisation was not the fault of the Finnish people or even of the other members of the Cold War elite. It was the fault of Kekkonen alone. Some commentators have responded that, until the Russians declassify the relevant records, which there is no sign of them doing in the near future, such criticism remains speculative. Others stress the culpability of the entire Cold War elite as there was never a purge of officialdom after 1989 as in other ex-Soviet satellite states. In 2008, the Finnish government refused to release the list of alleged Stasi agents in Finland during the 1970s, raising suspicions that senior Finnish politicians, including the current social democratic President Tarja Halonen, were on it.

But the Kekkonen narrative leaves Finns free to argue that their involvement with the East and its ‘undemocratic’ systems was merely an aberration into which they were led by a charismatic, self-serving charlatan; it does not reflect the ‘true nature’ of Finns and they are left free to return to the ‘West’ where they rightly belong. This negative view of Kekkonen is common among younger Finns. ‘Of course Finland was a dictatorship and Kekkonen was a dictator. But for a lot of people, even now, any criticism of Kekkonen is taboo’, said a 32-year-old housewife. However, Finns are not necessarily in favour of the ‘Westernising narrative’, which tends to play down the many ‘Eastern’ dimensions in Finland, especially in terms of culture, language and even, possibly, genes. In 2005 the anthropologist Pertti Anttonen commented that it is after joining the European Union (EU) in 1995 that Finland has become suddenly ‘Western’.

A third narrative accepts that Finland lost its independence and even democracy during the Cold War but rather than attempt to absolve the Finns and blame Kekkonen it draws on history to explain it in terms of the Finnish national psyche. The historian Jukka Relander argues that the Finns have ‘always bowed down before external powers’. First it was the Swedes, then the ‘Lutheran God’, then the Russians, the Germans, the Soviet Union and now the EU, instead ‘Finland does not decide, it reacts,’ says Relander. It sees itself as ‘a victim’. When the country joined the EU, instead of asking how membership would be of benefit to Finland it asked ‘How can we make ourselves fit for the EU?’ Tarja Laine, a sociologist, believes that Finns are ‘ashamed’ of their self-perceived ‘uncivilised’, backwoods culture.

Cold War historiography is especially significant in its role in the evolution of Finnish identity because, unlike many former Eastern Bloc countries, it was never secure in its ‘Europeanness’. Though there is a Swedish-speaking minority who remain a large part of the elite, the majority of Finns speak an eastern language (related to those of Siberia) and were widely regarded as Mongoloid, rather than European, until the 1950s.

Since the end of the Cold War, the picture seems to have moved on from a view of Finland as being positioned between east and west to a suggestion that it has ‘come home’ to Europe. Over the past 20 years, Finnish historiography has reflected both a desire for someone to blame and a defence of that same person. A somewhat deeper narrative is cautious of a Westernising perspective and looks for explanations for Finland’s Cold War experience in its broader history, seeking to interpret the past rather than to reach firm conclusions. Hentilä, for example, is adamant that it will be at least 20 years before meaningful conclusions can be drawn about this period. Some are not prepared to wait that long. Finns, as a nation, are profoundly concerned about how they are viewed by outsiders and especially about being regarded as uncivilised. This insecurity manifests itself most markedly in Finland’s Westernising Cold War narratives; the desperate desire by some in the academic elite to be accepted as ‘Western’, to be accepted by ‘us’.