Blog--My Finnish History
In previous blog postings I have written about the Soviet Union’s influence in Finland’s internal and external politics during the Cold War and the extent to which Finns themselves harnessed Soviet influence for their own domestic purposes. This game of political manipulation never reached into the realms of culture. Until the end of World War II, Finns upheld a national consensus that their country was “the outpost of Western civilization.” The writer Uuno Kailas expressed this sentiment in a well-known poem: “The border opens like a chasm/Before me Asia, the East/Behind me Europe, the West/[which] I, the sentry, guard.” The consensus held that Finland was a Western country, to the east of which lay lands (the USSR) where Asiatic barbarity reigned. After the war, Finland had to accept its place in the Soviets' power-political sphere of influence. It relinquished its self-appointed role as the outpost of Western Civilization. Nonetheless, among Finns prevailed a sense that while Soviet power had to be accommodated, Russian culture did not.
One example of this cultural distance to this day is the small percentage of students who study Russian as a foreign language in schools. In a survey in 2019 published by Finland’s National Agency for Education, Russian was at the bottom of languages studied in Finnish schools in three of all four classifications of language learning. Students can learn as many as four languages starting in first grade and the languages are added as one progresses in school. The only case in which Russian is not least studied language is in the last language group, the so-called B2 language, which students can start as early as the seventh grade. As a B2 language only English is studied less, but that is because over 99% of students started studying English earlier.
Before leaving for Finland for the first time in August 1982, I read a story in Time magazine about the presidential election of 1982 (topic of another blog post). The story mentioned that very few young people studied Russian in school and boys considered it outright unpatriotic. When I got to Finland and had to make a schedule of courses at my school, there were many courses I could not take. Swedish, which my classmates had studied since seventh grade, was off the table. Natural science classes in Finland at the time were taught every year in alternating six-week periods from seventh grade until twelfth. In the US these fields are covered in one year so there were classes like physics that I had had no exposure to yet. To fill the schedule I decided to take Russian. In a previous summer, I had already self-taught a bit of the language using an old Berlitz book.
I quickly learned that what I read in the Time article was correct. While there were many sections of English, French, and German taught at the school, there was only one Russian section. It had only fifteen or so students in it. I was the only boy in the class. My first reaction was great—the other guys in the school can have their Russophobia! Even today If one looks at the study cited in this posting on page 5, one sees that still a large majority of Russian students are female.
The course was challenging. In addition to the complexities of the Russian language itself, whatever I learned had to occur through a class taught in Finnish by a teacher who could best explain details to me in German. Like many Russian teachers then and now, there was not enough work for a full-time Russian instructor so she taught German as well, another language she was qualified to teach. The teacher and my classmates were incredibly patient with me—something that might not have occurred in a smaller class. Most of the students in the class wanted to learn Russian in order to find work in Finnish-Soviet trade—a major aspect of Finland’s Cold War economy and a reason why even politically conservative Finns such as those who predominated in the town I lived in backed good relations with the USSR.
My friends during that year were very supportive of me learning Russian. Somehow they hoped that I would learn the language, go back to America, and end the Cold War. It was fine for Finns to keep the Soviets at arm’s length but Americans had to be better—a common expectation I encountered in various forms during the Cold War in Finland.
I did not get a great grade from my Russian class, but I did find Russian helpful in future endeavors. I was able to use my language skills later that year in a trip to Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and the two summers I worked at a hotel in Helsinki that catered to Soviet tourists, both topics of future blog postings. I studied Russian for a year at university, but I ended up having to stop in order to have enough space to complete my degree. I will never master Russian, but what little I did learn proved to be an advantage in Finland.
The book in the photograph is the Russian textbook Mayak used by students in Finnish schools during the 1980s. It embodied both the Soviet Union and Finnish-Soviet relations. The few pictures in the book were black-and-white. Unlike textbooks that I used for other languages taught in my school, there was in Mayak virtually nothing on Finland’s relations with the country of the language in question. I remember a German textbook that had a chapter devoted to explaining Finland’s foreign policy in German. In Mayak there was an assumption that a Finn using Russian would use it in a more distanced fashion than one using English, German, or French. One would use Russian to speak across the chasm rather than to cross it.
I encountered this particular copy of the book one evening when visiting a couple in Helsinki a couple a few years ago. At some point in our discussions I told my story about learning Russian. One of my hosts left the room and a few moments later came back with her copy of Mayak. I learned that while I was studying Russian, she was doing the same an hour or so up the road in another town. Opening the book, seeing the pictures and the exercises led to a flood of good memories.
Swedish in Finland
November 6 in Finland is Svenska dagen, or often rendered in English as Swedish Heritage Day. This day recognizes the little over five percent of the population that speaks Swedish as its first language. The date of November 6 was chosen in 1908 in honor of King Gustavus Adolphus (1611-1632) who died on this date in 1632 on the battlefield of Lützen, Germany in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).
The relationship between Finland’s linguistic majority and minority is often seen as a model for other multilingual countries. Linguistic strife has never pushed the country to the brink of dissolution, such as in Canada or Belgium. The minority has never felt it necessary to use violence to protect or advance its rights. While peaceful, the relationship has historically been complicated, often for reasons that are not evident on the surface.
Finland was a part of the Swedish kingdom from the twelfth century until it became part of the Russian Empire in 1809. Despite hyperbolic discourses of Finnish victimhood at the hands of the Swedes, Finnish was able to survive into the twentieth century and become an official language of an independent state in part through efforts of Swedish speakers. In the sixteenth century, Mikael Agricola, a Swedish speaker, created the basis for Finnish as a written language. In the nineteenth century, the movement to make Finnish the primary language of the Finnish nation was first led by J. V. Snellman. Snellman called on his countrymen to use Finnish. In an example of do as I say and not as I do, Snellman made his exhortations in Swedish. The deference to the Finnish language among Swedish speakers today is expressed by the old saw that if there are nine people speaking Swedish with each other in a room and a Finnish speaker walks in, the conversation changes into Finnish. People of both language groups are required to start learning the other official language starting in seventh grade. Many start earlier.
The language conflicts stemmed from the growth of nationalism in the nineteenth century. Nineteenth century nationalism called for a nation to have one language. It is over the country’s schools where the language conflicts between have been most ardently fought, even into our own time. In the nineteenth century many Swedish speakers in the educational administration of the country blocked attempts to channel public funds into Finnish-language schools, even after Finland’s ruler Emperor Alexander II of Russia made Finnish co-official with Swedish in 1863. Until well into the nineteenth century, Finnish speakers, such as Finland’s national author Aleksis Kivi, had to attend Swedish-language schools to get any education. After independence in 1917, the question of language at the country’s one university in Helsinki University drove partisans in the two language camps to found monolingual universities in Turku: the Finnish-language Turun yliopisto and the Swedish-language Åbo akademi. Both institutions operate today with a great deal of cooperation that would have been unthinkable in the 1920s. The debate in the 1920s and 1930s around Helsinki University centered around whether the university should have only Finnish as a language of instruction or both official languages. Only at the end of the 1930s when Finland was facing the threat of war was the problem resolved with Helsinki University being officially bilingual but in practice a Finnish-speaking institution in which instruction in Swedish was protected, especially in fields such as law and medicine.
The tension between the two language groups in the twenty-first century has been the requirement that Finnish-speaking students learn Swedish starting in the seventh grade at the latest. Well into the 1980s this was not a source of conflict for several reasons. During the Cold War era Sweden played an outsized role for Finns looking for opportunities abroad. In the years 1968 and 1969 Finland's population decreased because of outward migration to a Sweden suffering from a labor shortage. The Finnish-speaking population bought into the national consensus that bilingualism enriched the country. Also, and this is often not recognized, until the 1990s Finnish speakers seeking higher education had to learn two foreign languages in addition to Swedish—English and one other. Most Finns chose German, a language related to Swedish and English. Since the 1990s language requirements have been reduced, contributing to an environment in which English is considered the only language worth learning.
Much of the organized opposition to “compulsory Swedish” as its opponents call required instruction in Swedish comes from the far right. This fact along with the role of the Swedish People’s Party as a desirable partner for more moderate parties seeking to a governing coalition has prevented any serious move to eliminate Swedish in Finnish-language schools. The Svecophobia of the far right aside, there are more reasonable questions raised concerning the future of obligatory Swedish classes. What other country in the world forces its children to learn two national languages, neither one of which is even remotely a world language (compare French and English in Canada)? Why learn Swedish when Finns under the age of fifty are more likely to use English in their dealing with Swedes and the other peoples of the Nordic countries? Where else does ninety-five percent of the population have to learn the language of the remaining five percent? Why should Finnish speakers learn Swedish when Finland’s Swedish speakers increasingly seem to accept the country’s new bilingualism—Finnish and English or the new monolingualism—just English?
These are not easy questions to dismiss or answer, especially in our times when any academic subject taught in schools has to be seen as economically useful in the immediate term. In 2014 I addressed Finland’s Swedish-speaking historical society Historiska föreningen and predicted that by 2024 Swedish will no longer be a requirement in Finnish-language schools. I will now move that prediction to 2030. I can only answer the question as a historian and has someone who has benefitted from learning Swedish. Until the late 1800s, the written artefacts of Finland’s past are largely in Swedish. What will happen to the country’s sense of its own past, its sense of self, if its people are not given at least the opportunity to learn the language of their past? National unity has benefitted from both communities learning the other’s language. Code-shifting is common in bilingual communities. These are benefits Snellman probably did not consider when he told his countryman to cease speaking Swedish.
I wrote much of this posting in my mind before seeing that my buddy Minna Franck also blogged about Svenska dagen this week for her blog Finnwards. Check it out.
Where Do You Come From, Part 2
Two weeks ago I published a blog post on the three exhausting questions a person of foreign background of any kind in Finland has to answer. Last week, a person of immigrant background published an article on the website of the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation YLE about the five things Finns often say to people they consider outsiders (even if they are native born) that are othering and and even racist. One of the things Finns say is the question ”Where do you come from” that I mentioned in my blog.
Two Finnish Facebook friends of mine who come from different parts of the country and two different political bubbles posted the story. There was an ensuing discussion. The discussions took the same course. They reveal why the problems foreigners face in Finland is not limited to organized racism in the country. The more you want to integrate, the more othering behavior you encounter.
First, some responded that they always ask people who look or sound foreign where they come from and that the question is acceptable because they do not mean any hostile intent. Well, they might not, but many do. Finns are often not aware of the wider environment a person of foreign background operates in Finland. The environment is full of signals that you foreigner/not ”Finnish-looking” Finn are not one of ”us,” especially as one works to integrate into the culture and society. A person of foreign background frequently has to answer such questions concerning her background several times a day. There have been times over the years I have hesitated to go to an event such as a graduation party of a child of a friend of mine because I do not want to face a barrage of questions mentioned in this and my previous blog positing from people I do not know.
Second, some responded that their grandparents or parents were evacuees from territories ceded to the USSR after World War II and they were the targets of othering questions and behaviors. Or they came to Helsinki from the Savo region and people made fun of their dialect. I hear this a lot. People think they can speak to my knowledge of Finland's history. Please, are you saying that two wrongs make a right? People from Savo and the evacuees are considered part of the Finnish nation while someone with dark skin often is not.
Third, some argued that what constitutes racist and othering behavior is something to be determined by the majority. This attitude implies that an uncomfortable or othering question is only uncomfortable and othering if the person asking the question thinks so. Thus, if an outsider takes it wrong it must be her fault. This attitude is widespread and makes life more difficult than anything a anti-immigrant politician says on his twitter feed. This attitude is particularly insidious because even very tolerant Finns are unwilling to recognize that xenophobia is a real problem in the country.
Not everyone in the Facebook discussions made these arguments, but the many of the responses touched on one of the three lines of argument mentioned above. In my job I frequently have to interview job candidates. I may not ask where they come from in the interview. Interestingly I still get to learn a lot about the applicant.
Diplomacy Without Pique
At this time next week, we might know if President Donald Trump has been elected to a second term. This election campaign has focused little on foreign policy despite foreign attempts to interfere in election campaigns both in 2016 and 2020 and the loss of American standing in the world. The discontinuities that the Trump administration has brought to American foreign policy has tested the continuities of Finland’s policy toward the United States. Finland obviously has not been alone in this challenge.
The goal of Finland’s foreign policy since World War II has been to avoid all possible conflicts not just with its eastern neighbor, but with all major powers. Finland’s constitution states that the president in collaboration with the prime minister and cabinet determines the country’s foreign relations. The prime minister and cabinet are primarily responsible for relations with the European Union. In relations with other countries the president very often has a leading role particularly in relations with Russia, China, and the United States. Every president of Finland since World War II has made it an extremely high bend-over-backwards priority to maintain very good relations with the United States. The one mild exception to this is Tarja Halonen (2000-2012), who made known her opposition to the Iraq War.
Halonen’s successor since 2012 has been Sauli Niinistö, whose second and final term in the office ends in 2024. President Trump’s dealings with President Niinistö demonstrate President Trump’s disrespect for foreign leaders who are not dictators. It also has demonstrated to what extent Finland’s foreign policy leaders will withstand any embarrassment to maintain good relations.
President Niinistö became best known to Americans during his visit to Washington D.C. in October 2019. What was supposed to be a press conference with both presidents speaking about Finnish-American relations, President Trump erupted into a seemingly never-ending screed concerning his impending impeachment. President Niinistö became yet another prop in Donald Trump’s show.
This was not the first time President Niinistö was a prop for the American president. In the previous year in July 2018 President Niinistö hosted a summit conference between Presidents Trump and Putin in which President Trump famously proclaimed that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election because President Putin told him so. A few months later Trump has also cited President Niinistö as a source for his claims that forest fires are not as common in Finland because Finns go out and sweep their forests of dead brush.
Despite the treatment President Niinistö has received from President Trump, the Finnish president has not shown any pique for reasons that go deep into how Finland historically has conducted its foreign policy. First, as stated earlier, relations with the great powers are to be maintained regardless the cost to national pride or sacrifice of the country’s values as a democracy. It is the survival instinct of a small country. Realpolitik but without the military firepower. Second, Finns for decades lived by the motto that there is no such thing as bad publicity as far as their country is concerned. This belief has remained even as Finland in recent years has gained very positive publicity internationally, some of it actually richly deserved. Third, relations between two open societies such as the United States and Finland are much greater than one American presidency, no matter how narcissistic and destructive. As president, Sauli Niinistö has clearly used Urho Kekkonen as a role model. Hosting meetings between the USA and Russia fits the president’s self-image. In addition to the summit in 2018, Helsinki is the location of American-Russian nuclear talks.
Despite having to serve as a prop, President Niinistö has been one of the few democratically elected European leaders that President Trump consistently has said only nice things about over the last four years. Trump has not said anything bad about Finland either, even if for a while he thought that Finland belonged to Russia. If there is one thing President Trump understands it is leverage, and actually Finland has some for the moment. Finland is shopping for new fighter jets to replace its current fleet of F-18 Hornets. Of the five finalists two are American: the Lockheed-Martin F-35 and the MacDonnell Douglas F/A Superhornet. The other finalists are France’s Dassault Rafale, Sweden’s Saab Grippen, and the multinational Eurofighter Typhoon. A President Biden will not weaken relations with Finland if it does not buy American. He has been around long enough to remember that during the Cold War Finland bought its fighter aircraft from the USSR. A Finnish decision not to buy American in a Trump second term might turn President Niinistö, who, like Trump, would serve until 2424, from a prop into a target.
In August 1997 I moved to the city of Stillwater in Oklahoma to take a position at Oklahoma State University, where, with the exception of two separate years in Finland, I have been ever since. Except for a few days in February of that year that I spent here for an interview, I had never been to Oklahoma before moving here. I had never been to the American South. The best preparation I had for living here did not come from any experience I had had in the United States, but rather in Finland.
My first stay in Finland for a year was in Ostrobothnia, a region that covers Finland’s northwestern coastal area and the hinterlands. If you see Finland as a boot, Ostrobothnia is where the laces of the boot above the very large toe start. Oklahoma and Ostrobothnia share many features that distinguish themselves from the rest of their respective countries. First is geography. Both places are flat. Second, in both Ostrobothnia and Oklahoma wrestling is a popular sport. I am still looking to see if ever a wrestler from Ostrobothnia encountered a wrestler from Oklahoma State University or the state of Oklahoma in Olympic competition. Considering the talent on both ends I would not be surprised to find one eventually.
Third, both places are politically conservative vis a vis the rest of their respective countries. A democrat has not won Oklahoma in a presidential election since 1976. I seriously doubt Joe Biden will win this state three weeks from now. In Ostrobothnia with the exception of some cities, political power is held by parties of the center and the Right—the Center Party, the National Coalition Party, and in the region’s Swedish-speaking communities, the Swedish People’s Party. These three parties tend to lean more conservative than their counterparts in the rest of the country. Loyalty to these parties has been considered unbreakable until the recent rise of the anti-immigrant Finns party. Local elections next spring will tell. Ostrobothnia was also the home of the Lapua Movement, a far-right movement that in the 1930s challenged Finland’s democratic order by kidnapping opponents and even staging a coup that was crushed by overwhelming loyalty to the rule of law and more than a few rounds of cognac.
Above all though, both Oklahoma and Ostrobothnia fall into the Bible Belts of their countries. Oklahoma is a part of the American Bible Belt that ranges from Texas and Oklahoma in the west to cover states in the southeast. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Ostrobothnia is Finland’s Bible Belt. It is a stronghold of the two largest revivalist movements within Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church—the country’s largest denomination. One of the revivalist movements is the Awakened. Paavo Ruotsalainen (1777-1852) became the leading figure of the Awakened. An uneducated peasant, Ruotsalainen attracted a substantial following by appealing to the poor and the oppressed through his emphasis on the inability of people to save themselves. Only God can save people. The other movement is Laestadianism also known as Apostolic Lutheranism. A parish minister in Swedish Lapland, Lars Levi Laestadius (1800-61), launched a campaign in the 1840s against what he considered sinful activities, above all consumption of alcohol. Support for Laestadius’s campaign spread into Finnish Lapland and other northern regions, such as Ostrobothnia. Laestadianism emphasizes the importance of confession of sins and the absolution of sins by someone of uncorrupted faith. Laestadianism is characterized by its specific application of teaching to everyday activities. Laestadians abstain from alcohol, contraception, even television. Both movements are recognized as one of the five revivalist movements within the Lutheran Church. They have their own meetings and annual events. The Awakened even have their own candy, a lozenge that tastes like Necco wafers. Although these two revivalist movements have little in common in terms of their activities, practices, and interpretations, they both arose out of a concern that Lutheranism was becoming too intellectual, bureaucratic, and hierarchical. They put an emphasis emotion and the individual faith experience.
Ostrobothnia is home to many other faith communities that are not as common in other parts of Finland. Staring in the later nineteenth century, Finnish seamen returning to Ostrobothnia’s coastal ports brought with them Protestant faiths such as Baptism, Methodism, and the Free Church movement. The arrival of refugees from Vietnam in the late 1970s and 1980s has meant that for years regular Catholic services are held in cities such as Vaasa and Pietarsaari. For those of you who read Swedish a wonderful reportage of the different faith communities in Ostrobothnia was published in 2010 by Finland’s largest Swedish-language daily Hufvudstadsbladet.
Three Exhausting Questions
Google the words immigrant and ”where do you come from” . You will find stories of people of immigrant background around the world who share in the loathing of answering the question “Where do you come from?” The question can be demoralizing and othering, especially if it comes from a complete stranger with no future interest in your life. In Finland, a country with a homogenous population and myths of racial homogeneity, anyone who does not “look” Finnish will be asked the question often even if the person is born in Finland and speaks Finnish as a first language. I remember once I was in a restroom in a restaurant in Helsinki in the 1980s. The man in the neighboring urinal opened a conversation with me by asking me where I was from. When responding with Helsinki did not satisfy him, I then replied that yes, I was really from Albania and that I was the son of Enver Hoxha, the long-time ruler of communist Albania. I was then able to finish relieving myself in peace. I had long realized that giving my true country of origin would just result in the questioner trying to speak English to me, especially after a few beers in a restaurant. Several times over the years in public saunas and swimming pools I have been asked bolt out of the blue if I am a Roma, although the questioners have used the older and pejorative word mustalainen or Gypsy.
Regardless of whether you answer that you come from Albania, the United States, or Jupiter, you need to be prepared to ask the almost inevitable follow-on question “Why did you come to Finland?” Behind the question is an expectation that you justify your existence to someone you barely know by explaining how you got into that person’s space. The story of the bus ride that you just took is not enough. Only a full exposition of your life up until that point is enough for the person who asked the question.
One might think that knowing the language would signal to possible questioners that you are integrated into the culture and thus more like one of them. Nope, most Finns are so convinced that their language is impossible for foreigners to learn that if you speak the language well you are then asked to account for how you learned the language.
People of foreign background experience these questions in all countries, but I have experienced these questions more in Finland than I have in Germany, Austria, or Sweden, countries where I have also have lived and speak the language.
I have regular collaborations with people who, like me, are foreigners who have been living in and or dealing with Finland for years. I do not know how they got to Finland except what has come out as secondary parts of larger conversations. I have never asked them directly. They have never asked me directly.
This week ice hockey has been on my mind more than normal. My favorite team in the National Hockey League, the Dallas Stars, had a magical playoff run only to lose to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the finals in game six on Monday. Meanwhile, in Finland hockey's Elite League starts its regular season today in the shadow of the corona virus that canceled the league’s playoffs last season. My team in the Elite League is Helsinki IFK. Current Dallas Stars’ players Roope Hintz and Miro Heiskanen started their professional careers with HIFK.
In the months before I left for Finland in 1982 I came to know an exchange student from Helsinki. I already was a hockey fan and he said that he would invite me to see an HIFK match when we were both in Finland. In the 1982-83 season, HIFK made it into the finals against archrival Jokerit of Helsinki. HIFK lost the first two games in the best-of-five series. With HIFK facing elimination in game three, my friend invited me to see the game. I skipped school and took the six-hour train ride from Ylivieska to Helsinki. Little did I know that in the evening I would see the pivotal game in what it is still remembered as one of the greatest final series in the history of the Elite League.
The game started promisingly for HIFK. It led 2-1 early in the first period and as much as 5-2 in the early stages of the third period. Jokerit then scored three straight goals, tying the game and controlling the momentum. Then Toni Arima scored the winning goal on a pass from the legendary Matti Hagman. HIFK won game three and then the next two games to win its fifth championship.
Finnish ice hockey has changed significantly since the early 1980s largely as a result of growth in revenue streams. The length of the season has almost doubled. The number of teams in the Elite League has increased. Teams’ corporate sponsorships have become more lucrative. Like with other professional sports leagues around the world over the last decades, television contracts have been the mother lode. Hockey teams that resembled local sports clubs in the early 1980s became full-fledged businesses by the 1990s. In the early 1980s even top players were semi-professional. Matti Hagman, the first player from Finland to play in the National Hockey League, worked as a fireman while he played for HIFK. Today the vast majority of players live well off of their hockey income. The professionalization of players has led to success for Finland in international hockey with Finland winning world championships in 1995. 2011, and 2019 as well as several Olympic silver and bronze medals since 1988.
From the standpoint of this fan, not all of the developments have been positive. The growing competition for broadcast rights has created growing income for the league but eliminated opportunities to watch games on free television or even basic cable, reducing access for many casual and potential fans. One watches games now through a subscription service from Finland’s telecommunications giant. Those who subscribe can watch games on their televisions, smart phones, or laptops in their living rooms or at their cottages. Partly as a result, attendance at games has been on the decline. One of the Elite League’s main plot lines from the 1960s onward was the rivalry between HIFK and Jokerit. That story ended in 2014 when Jokerit’s new majority owners--Russian oligarchs with Finnish citizenship—moved the team into the Russian-led Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). I still think I will see Jokerit return to the Elite League in my lifetime.
I wonder if hockey in Finland will meet the opportunities offered by an increasingly diverse population. Is there room in the country’s de facto national sport for people of immigrant backgrounds? HIFK could draw on its tradition of inclusion to meet the challenge. HIFK was the first team to seriously recruit players from abroad. From its marketing to announcements during the game, the team openly embraces both national languages of Finland—Finnish and Swedish. The team’s official motto “en gång, alltid” is Swedish for ”once [HIFK] always [HIFK]."
Despite these concerns about the recent past, present and future--Gå IFK!
After Kekkonen--The New Sheriff in Town
When I arrived in Finland in August 1982, President Mauno Koivisto (1923-2017) had been in office for about six months. I could not find anyone who did not like him, and I lived in a town that was not a stronghold of support for him in the election of January 1982. Looking back, it feels like it took me years to find a detractor. Mauno Koivisto appealed to diverse parts of the population without being a populist. He had a working-class background but also had a doctorate in the social sciences. He was a social democrat but had run banks, including Finland’s central bank. Like many of his generation, he was a war veteran. For those wanting to leave the Kekkonen era, Koivisto was an anti-Kekkonen. As prime minister, he refused to resign in the spring of 1981 despite Kekkonen’s very strong suggestion that he do so. Unlike Kekkonen, Koivisto did not keep a ”court” of followers. Instead, he saw himself as the lone sheriff played by Gary Cooper in the movie ”High Noon.” For those who sought continuity with Kekkonen, he vowed to uphold Finland’s policy of constructive appeasement toward the USSR, officially known as the ”Paasikivi-Kekkonen Line.” Upon his election, Koivisto called for a wide-ranging national discussion on the powers of the presidency, the topic of a future blog entry.
Mauno Koivisto was certainly the right man for the time when he was elected president in 1982. By the end of his second and final term in 1994 many in Finland--including me--saw him as someone made obsolete by events. The Cold War was over. Finland’s postwar economic juggernaut had crashed into depression. The Soviet Union had collaped. In the quarter century since his departure from office, a picture of a much more active president has emerged. We now know that he was prepared to declare a state of emergency to save Finnish banks in the early 1990s. He engaged—some would say unduly influenced-- the courts in support of the banks. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mauno Koivisto with most of the political elite expressed public concern about and criticism of the struggle for national independence in the Baltic States. Finns were concerned that the upheavals in the Soviet Union could have negative impacts on Finland and Finnish-Soviet relations. Behind these statements of concern and criticism, we now know that President Koivisto was involved in the secret support of tens of millions of dollars from Finnish state coffers to the Baltic States' independence movements
Further revisions to popular understandings of Koivisto’s life will likely come with the very recent publication of a biography of Kovisto’s life until 1959 by Tapio Bergholm. The book challenges the image Finns have had of him from the 1960s onward—a thoughtful, deliberate, unemotional, even-tempered man. Bergholm reveals that before his arrival in Helsinki in the late 1950s from his native Turku, Koivisto was a more openly emotional man and was a much more radical socialist thinker than he would demonstrate in his years in national politics. History does not repeat itself—but it is always being rewritten.
A Presidential Election
In January 1982 I learned that I would be sent to Finland to spend a year as a high school exchange student starting in August. The internet was well over a decade away. Learning about my new home for a year required searching for current information about Finland from libraries, talking with acquaintances of acquaintances who had visited Finland, and meeting a few exchange students from Finland. Every once and a while the atmosphere would allow me to listen to shortwave broadcasts of the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation.
In the quest for knowledge I had the good fortune that Finland in January 1982 was in the world media. The country was having a presidential election. It was the first normal presidential election since 1937 in which Urho Kekkonen was not on the ballot. It was the first election since 1956 in which Kekkonen was not the incumbent and prohibitive favorite to win. The outcome of the election was also historic. The winner, the Social Democrats’ Mauno Koivisto, was Finland’s first president from the left and first born in an urban area (Turku).
Urho Kekkonen (1900-1986) served as Finland’s president from 1956 until health problems forced him to resign in October 1981. My classmates at school in Ylivieska had grown up not knowing any other president. Until 1994 Finland’s presidents were elected by an electoral college whose individual electors were chosen by the people. Kekkonen won the 1956 election by the slimmest of margins 151-149. He was then reelected in 1962 and 1968 in landslides. Before the end of his third consecutive six-year term, parliament by a five-sixths majority overrode the constitution and extended Kekkonen’s term set to expire in 1974 to 1978. At the end of this extended term, Kekkonen then decided to run for yet another six-year term, winning it handily. Only after Kekkonen’s presidency would a president be limited to two six-year terms.
For several reasons Kekkonen was able to stay in office for so long, Many reasons represent topics of books in and of themselves. Yes, he did have the backing of Moscow. This backing was particularly helpful in winning a second term in 1962. In the months before the election, the Soviets created a crisis in Finnish-Soviet relations designed to insure that Finnish voters would rally around Kekkonen. Kekkonen became the embodiment of good relations with the USSR. By the 1970s, criticism of Kekkonen became tantamount to criticism of good relations with the USSR. Kekkonen worked to improve Finland’s economy—a departure from his predecessors who focused largely on their constitutional authority in foreign and security policy. During Kekkonen’s presidency, Finland became increasingly wealthy. Over the twentieth century as a whole no European country had higher rates of economic growth than Finland. Much of that growth occurred during Kekkonen’s presidency. Kekkonen’s foreign policy made Finland a reliable and visible partner in the easing of tensions in the Cold War. Helsinki became place for meetings between American and Soviet leaders. In 1975, Kekkonen hosted the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. At this meeting, leaders of Europe and North America signed the Helsinki Accords that lessened Cold War tensions and gave hope to dissidents in Communist Eastern Europe. The conference, Kekkonen’s most lasting achievement, became a permanent organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Kekkonen left office in 1981 leaving the country in a more secure and prosperous place than when he became president a quarter-century earlier. The price of his presidency was a diminution of democracy. Many still question not the high price of Kekkonen’s successes but the necessity of having paid the price at all.
Schools and Violence
On Tuesday of this week a trial began in Kuopio in eastern Finland. The accused is a 25-year-old man charged with attacking his fellow students and teachers in a classroom with a sword last year. Before he could be stopped 25 people were injured and one killed. In September 2008, a twenty-two year-old student at a vocational school in Kauhajoki in Ostrobothnia killed ten in a shooting rampage before killing himself with his legal gun. Months earlier in November 2007, an eighteen year-old student entered his school in the southern Finnish town of Tuusula. Legally possessing a handgun, he shot eight people, including the school’s director, before shooting himself. He had told of his plans days before in You Tube video.
Over the last two decades Finland has been at the center of world’s attention for its educational system. The school system in any country reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the country at large. Finland has problems with violence that undermines its reputation as the world’s happiest country. A recent doctoral thesis concluded that Finland ranks second among EU countries in the rate of domestic violence. Finland’s overall rate of violent crime corresponds more to the higher rates in the Baltic States than with its Scandinavian neighbors to the west. Acts of violence against police have doubled since the year 2000. More than one in five people in Finland have experienced violence or the threat of it at work. One historically high form of violent crime—suicide—has been on the decline. In research of sixteenth-century Finland I examine sources known as the bailiff’s records. They are central to anyone studying Finland’s sixteenth century. These records were kept by local bailiffs and include such documents as letters, tax ledgers, and lists of fines levied in court. One can go for pages reading lists of people who received three-mark fines for assault. If one reads only the bailiff’s records, one could easily think that all people did in sixteenth-century Finland was assault each other.
The same reasons for violence are trotted out after every mass killing, whether in school or not: Finns’ inability to express their feelings constructively, the abuse of alcohol, and bullying among others. Some laws have been changed, such as raising the age to possess a handgun to twenty, but many initiatives have gone nowhere. There has not been a mass crackdown on the ownership of firearms such as those in Great Britain or Australia. For the reason behind the reluctance I look to another country unwilling to confront its culture of violence—the United States. In the United States, crime is largely understood as a function of individual moral weakness. A mass murderer is often easily explained away as an isolated incident that nobody could have helped. Some people are just evil. In Europe and in particular in very homogenous countries like Finland, crime is understood as coming out of the cracks of what should be a cohesive society that cares for all. Individual crime emanates from a collective context. While I would argue that this approach to crime leads to lower overall rates, it does mean that to confront violent crime effectively society must admit a collective weakness. A cohesive society does not mean a perfect society.
An update to the above entry written 10 September: On 17 September 2020 European Court of Human Rights found Finland guilty of violating the right to life in the 2008 school shooting in Kauhajoki.
The early 1980s represented one of the tensest periods in the Cold War. The USSR was in Afghanistan. In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States with promises to enhance America’s military strength against a country he dubbed an evil empire. NATO was in the process of deploying medium-range missiles. In September 1983 the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner. In November 1983, the Soviet Union briefly interpreted a routine NATO military exercise as the beginning of a nuclear attack.
I flew to Finland in August 1982 with fellow high school exchange students from the western US and western Canada. Upon arriving at the airport in Helsinki, we were put on busses and taken to a school for a week of orientation before spreading out across the country. My first meal there was certainly an orientation. I took from the buffet table what I thought was milk and Salisbury steak. It was buttermilk and liver, two foods I never remember having previously. The organizers of the orientation had already exhorted us several times not to waste any food, so I ate my meal. The liver was good. I have never had buttermilk since.
The orientation’s program consisted of language training and several presentations about Finland. One of the presentations was given by a senior official in Finland’s foreign ministry. He talked about Finland’s foreign policy and in particular about Finland’s relationship with the Soviet Union. The official told us that, contrary to what we might have learned in our home countries, the USSR did not have any undue influence over Finland’s domestic and foreign affairs. For us to say otherwise would offend our Finnish hosts.
We were each handed a copy of the Finnish-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (FCMA) signed in 1948. The treaty is frequently referred to in English by its Finnish initials YYA. The treaty was signed after World War II during which Finland had fought on the side of Germany against the USSR 1941-1944. Finns during the Cold War era pointed to this treaty when outsiders questioned Finland’s independence. The treaty specifically stated that Finland was not a part of the Soviet alliance system. While not a formal military alliance, the treaty called on Finland to forestall any outside attack on the Soviet Union through Finland. For the Soviets, it was a soft military alliance.
The presentation that I experienced exemplified how much in Finnish society had become mediated by Finland’s relationship with the USSR. Even the arrival of some forty or so teenagers from the United States and Canada could not occur without bringing in Finnish-Soviet relations. That the country’s foreign ministry felt it important enough to send to a senior civil servant to talk to a bunch of North American teenagers exemplifies how important it was to have everyone in the country towing the Paasikivi-Kekkonen Line, the name of the country’s official foreign policy.
Much of what was done in Finland the name of Finnish-Soviet relations during the Cold War, especially from the 1960s onward, was not instigated by the Soviet Union. It was done by domestic Finnish elites not so much to keep good relations with Moscow as to strengthen their power and authority domestically. Finland has a long history of using foreigners as a cudgel in domestic politics: the king in Stockholm until 1809, the emperor in St. Petersburg until 1917, the election of a German king in 1918, the Soviet Union, and, more recently, the Somalis in eastern Helsinki as well as the European Union.
More on Finnish—Soviet relations intermittently in future blog posts. I have resolved to keep these posts to around 500 words.
Why this blog?
I am writing this for two reasons. First, I have reached a point in my life where I have accumulated enough experience about Finland that I want to write them down in order to make sense of my own Finnish past. Historians aim to master the past. Here I want to try to master my past experiences. Since August 1982 I have lived and worked in Finland on an off. I have witnessed a country that has gone through significant changes. Despite Finland’s reputation as a stable country, many of the institutions and operating assumptions that existed in 1982 no longer exist. In less than twenty years after 1982 the country’s official foreign policy became obsolete, Finland joined the European Union, the euro replaced the mark as the country’s currency, a woman of African ancestry was chosen Miss Finland, and the country elected an unchurched, unmarried woman president of the republic. Nokia went from being known for making toilet paper and tires to becoming synonymous with mobile telephones. All of these changes were inconceivable in 1982. In the last twenty years Finland has seen the end of Nokia as a mobile phone giant. The growth of the far right on the last decade has achieved levels of support that the far left had in 1982. A country that has been identified as a world’s happiest is dealing with growing problems of income inequality, declines in education, and unexamined xenophobia toward a growing population of immigrant background.
The second goal of this blog is to give historical analyses to current problems. For some blog entries, I envision giving a history of the present. I hope that in pursuing both aims readers might find useful insights. Many of the entries will be drawn from the everyday.
For those who want to read yet another account of a foreigner expressing awe about an “exotic” country will be disappointed. I do not consider Finland exotic or inscrutable. I do consider it interesting enough to have kept my attention for most of my life.
A Journey into a Last Fine Time
The Last Fine Time is a novel written in the early 1990s by Verlyn Klinkenborg. The story takes place in Buffalo, New York. The author tells a story of his father-in-law who inherited a restaurant in 1947 and transformed it from a neighborhood watering hole into a swinging night spot at a time growing postwar prosperity. By the end of the 1960s the prosperity began to wane, the regulars began to move into the suburbs, and the upheavals convulsing the rest of the country reached the old neighborhood. The restaurant closed. The last fine time had come to an end.
In August 1982 I landed in Finland during a period that since has been remembered as a last fine time. According to opinion polls such as one by the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation in 2013 , Finns see the 1980s as the best decade to have lived in. This sentiment is not without a factual basis. Unemployment was much lower in the 1980s than in the late 1970s or any time after after the 1980s. The strong Finnish mark made foreign travel not only affordable but outright profitable. If you were short on money for a month in Spain, a bank would gladly loan you the money. The Soviet Union cast a slowly decreasing shadow over the country. Many who had left Finland in the late 1960s for Sweden in search of work were now returning.
The city in which I would spend the next year, Ylivieska, embodied the decade. At the time of my arrival, public buildings from city hall to the library to the swim hall had been built within the last ten years or so. Much of the single-family housing was also new. This city of some 12,000 inhabitants had commercial air service. The only sign of centuries of habitation was the august white church from the late eighteenth century. The church succumbed to arson in 2016.
Of course, in popular memory decades later the prosperity of the era has been even more exaggerated and the difficulties of the era forgotten. Finns longing for the 1980s certainly would not want to return to buying alcohol from state-run stores in which one had to line up at a counter and tell a sales person what one wanted. Taxes were higher. Towing the official line toward the Soviet Union was still a requirement for many for advancement. Life was good if one fit in the very homogenous cultural norms of the time.
More on the roaring eighties and its crash and burn in later entries.