Blog--My Finnish History
During the first sixty or so years of its experience as an independent state, Finland’s politics were marked by short-lived governments. It was not until the 1980s that a Finnish cabinet remained in office during an entire four-year period between parliamentary elections. Several structural factors contributed to the short lifespan of cabinets. Parliament has always had a multitude of parties with not one party having more than a quarter of the seats in parliament. The calling of early elections has meant the end of a government. Until the 1980s, there was a tradition of governments resigning after a presidential election. Add to these structural factors the political pressures that split coalitions in any democracy. In one hundred two years of independence, Finland has had seventy-six governments.
The term government crisis is used in Finland to describe a cabinet that has either collapsed or about to collapse. My first experience with a government crisis in Finland occurred in December 1982. The coalition which consisted of the Social Democrats, the Center Party, the Swedish People’s Party, and the far-left and mostly communist Finnish People’s Democratic League (SKDL) ended when the SKDL left the government over a proposed increase in defense spending.
In one way, this government crisis was typical of many. After formally submitting its resignation to the president, Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa was empowered by the president to continue in office and reshuffle the portfolios among the remaining coalition partners. The coalition still held a majority of seats in parliament, although its work was made more difficult since it no longer held the two-thirds of seats then needed to pass budgetary measures without opposition help. In fact, the collapse of many cabinets resulted in most of the parties returning to government, if not immediately then after an election or a short-term caretaker government.
The departure of the SKDL in 1982 would prove of historical significance since it ended an era since 1966 in which the coalition of the Social Democrats, the Center Party, and the SKDL dominated Finnish politics. The end of the so-called “Big Three” or “Popular Front” coalition marked the beginning of a period in which the weight of politics would shift slowly to the right. The SKDL and its major component, the Finnish Communist Party ceased to exist by the early 1990s. In their place a new party, the Left-Wing Alliance was created. It returned to government in 1995-2003 as a partner in the governments of Social Democratic Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen.
Since the end of the popular front in 1982 government crises have been few. Ideological differences between the parties for the most part have narrowed. Coalition partners have made detailed agreements and stuck to them. Since 1982 the only two major government crises occurred in 2003 and 2019. In both cases the crisis lasted a few days and was resolved by the resignation of the prime minister while leaving the coalition intact.
In the summer of 2019 the Popular Front materialized again, but it was no longer the Big Three. The Social Democrats were the largest party still, but the Center was the fourth largest part and the Left Alliance the sixth biggest party. Like in the old Popular Front coalitions, the small Swedish People’s Party is also partner. A party that did not have representation in Parliament in 1982, the Greens, are also partners.
This current coalition under Prime Minister Sanna Marin has received much international attention, mostly because of the fact that the leaders of all five coalition parties are women. Despite the progressive aura around this government and proclamations to foreign audiences as yet another example of the paradise that is Finland, this government has accomplished little in terms of advancing a progressive agenda. This is largely because of the pandemic that has consumed most of the government’s energy. Even many supporters of opposition parties agree that the government and Prime Minister Marin in particular have done well despite everything in keeping the virus in check.
At the end of April the coalition partners entered into their midterm conference. Since the 1980s this conference has become a practice by which the parties revisit their original agreement and negotiate possible adjustments to it. These midterm negotiations drew the coalition to the brink of collapse. The parties were divided over how to handle the budget deficit caused by the pandemic. The main question was over how much to cut with the Center Party pushing for the most severe cuts. Another question was over the question of subsidies for the use of peat as an energy source. The peat is an important but declining energy source in Finland as well as a provider of jobs in rural areas where the Center Party draws its support. The Center Party wanted to weaken the goals for reducing the emissions caused from peat. This put the party at loggerheads with the Greens. For a week the parties negotiated and came to an agreement. More peat use was accommodate by lowering caps on other kinds of greenhouse gas emissions and giving subsidies to peat producers whose product had experienced increases in price and decreases demand. Part of these subsidies will be paid for by raiding the budget on research. So much for a progressive government. Most other state agencies will have their budgets cut.
The backdrop to this crisis is the same backdrop for all of Finnish politics over the last ten years: the far-right Finns Party. After years of cutting into the support of left-wing parties, the Finns Party’s continued growth now comes out of support from the non-socialist parties, the Center Party in particular. The Center Party is facing in next month’s municipal elections a historical defeat to the Finns Party in the areas in northern and eastern Finland where they have dominated for decades. The Center Party has to show its voters that it still defends the interest of rural Finland. The Center Party will likely become yet another party that thought it could ignore the Finns Party without cost. If the government had collapsed, it would have been difficult to imagine an alternative coalition with majority support in parliament without the Finns Party.
Diinarit—The Cult of James Dean
Sometime in the months before I left for Finland in 1982 I read a story in National Geographic magazine about Helsinki. In the article was a picture of some teenage boys talking to a policemen. The boys were dressed in jean jackets and had duck tail haircuts. The caption of the picture stated that Helsinki had several youth subcultures. The two biggest groups were the punkers and a group known as the diinarit, people who modeled themselves after the American actor James Dean.
When I arrived in Ylivieska in the fall of 1982, I did not see any punkers; there were many diinarit at my school. What interested me then and now is how an American actor who died over a quarter-century earlier could make such a huge impact on Finland’s youth without making a similar impact on their American counterparts. An unstudied field in the history of American culture concerns American cultural figures who became more popular in certain countries than in the United States. Most Americans know that while the French stereotypically have a condescending view of all things American, they also love Jerry Lewis movies. Most Americans do not know that while David Hasselhof was starring on Baywatch he was also a singing superstar in Germany. During my year as a high school exchange student I in a figurative sense mortally wounded a classmate of mine by informing her that none of my friends in America had ever seen a James Dean movie. I barely knew who James Dean was until I came to Finland.
The reason for the genesis of this cult of James Dean in Finland is unclear and a question I consider when I need distraction from other research projects. There does not seem to be a magic moment, such as when Paul Anka performed at Helsinki’s Linnamäki amusement park in 1959. The middle to late 1970s was a time of 1950s nostalgia worldwide. In the United States the best-known example of this were the long runs of 1950s-themed television series such as “Happy Days (also seen on Finnish television),” “Laverne and Shirley,” and in a more serious vein “MASH.” In Finland as in many other parts of the Western world 1950s-inspired rockabilly music became popular. The choice to show James Dean movies was made by a handful of people who imported movies. James Dean’s movies were shown in theaters and on television in the 1970s. Youth magazines promoted the Dean cult heavily. Decades after the end of the diinarit he Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE has Dean’s movie “East of Eden” on its Areena free streaming service.
A common symbol worn by the diinarit, the rockabilly fans, and other fifties aficionados was the confederate flag, usually on the sleeve of jean jackets. I encountered more confederate flags in one year in Finland than I had in my sixteen years of life previously in America. Nobody seemed to care that they were carrying a flag of slavery. A recent dissertation by an American musicologist examines the high years of rockabilly in Finland 1978-1982 and the use of the confederate flag by rockabilly aficionados even today.
For the diinarit the confederate flag meant rebellion. While the punk movement rebelled against the growth of capitalism and established conservative institutions, diinarit rebelled against a Finland that since the 1960s had been on a steady drift leftward in domestic politics. Official foreign policy aimed to appease Soviet power. Nationally the school system had just been reformed by officials who took inspiration from the East German school system. The strong anticommunist stand of the diinarit was made clear to me on one of my first weekends as an exchange student when I encountered at group of diinarit at a dance at the local swimming hall. These rebels with a cause gave me an alcohol-fueled demonstration of their hatred of communism and of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (Brezhnev actually died a few weeks later) and their love of the United States, a country they had never been to. The culture wars that Finns often think are a more recent development were going on in the depths of the Cold War.
As a historian I find the case of the cult of James Dean very interesting. I collect unsystematically material about the group but have not yet had the time or opportunity to do a full-fledged research project on it. It might end up being a project I do in retirement. Feel free to contact me if you have memorabilia or memories of the diinarit. In the meantime, I should see at least one of Dean’s three movies. For years after my year as an exchange student, I pointedly avoided them.
The Traveler to St. Petersburg
On 15 February Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in St. Petersburg. The foreign ministers of the two countries meet annually, but this was anything but a routine meeting. It occurred against the backdrop of a new round of arrests of dissidents in Russia. The most notable among the arrested was Alexei Navalny.
In traveling to St. Petersburg the Finnish foreign minister carried with him the history of Finnish-Russian relations. Finland’s history is loaded with Finnish leaders making high-stakes trips to Russia. After Finland declared its independence on 6 December 1917, the country’s leaders found themselves in St. Petersburg before the end of the month asking the new Bolshevik government to recognize Finland’s independence. Without Russian recognition few foreign powers were ready to recognize Finland as an independent country. In the fall of 1939 J. K. Paasikivi led three delegations to Moscow to discuss Russian demands for territory from Finland. The negotiations went nowhere and war erupted on the last day of November 1939. In 1948, Finnish negotiators went to Moscow to discuss Stalin’s demand for a military alliance. A less binding arrangement known as the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (YYA or FCMA Treaty) was signed, a topic of a previous blog post. During the Cold War, Finnish presidents visited the Soviet Union annually to affirm the “trust” between the two countries. The best-known of these visits was in November 1961, when President Kekkonen, after a successful three-week visit to the United States and Canada that included some vacation time in Hawaii. While in Hawaii, the Soviets issued a diplomatic note to Finland asking it to engage in discussions based on the YYA treaty. The note shook the Finns: accepting the Soviet request could end Finland’s claims to neutrality in the Cold War. Refusing the Soviet request could end Finland’s independence. Kekkonen completed his North American visit and then traveled to Siberia in November 1961 to discuss the note with Soviet leader Khrushchev. The Soviets ultimately decided to suspend their request for formal consultations in exchange for Kekkonen’s pledge to be on the watch for threats to Finnish-Soviet relations. The so-called “Note Crisis” had come to an end.
Scholars have long debated the reasons for the Soviet action: were the Soviets motivated by growing tensions in Europe, or by fears of Kekkonen’s possible defeat in the presidential election scheduled for January 1962? The note served several Soviet goals in respect to Finland and Europe. The note signaled concerns about West German rearmament, as well as Danish and Norwegian military cooperation within the Western alliance. The note had its greatest effectiveness on the outcome of the 1962 presidential election. The crisis broke the unity of the opposition against Kekkonen, insuring Kekkonen’s reelection by a wide margin.
Out of this historical context of high-stakes meetings with Russia, Foreign Minister Haavisto embarked on his trip to St. Petersburg. His visit was preceded by a visit by the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borell a few days before. Borell encountered criticism from EU member states for weakly and incompetently advocating the European Union’s position concerning Navalny and other dissidents. Would Haavisto follow a tradition of Finnish leaders cowering before their Russian counterparts?
Haavisto’s meeting with Lavrov achieved no concrete successes for Finland and the European Union. Navalny and other dissidents are still in jail. In Finland the meeting was considered an unqualified success. The foreign minister expressly and openly called for Navalny’s release while in St. Petersburg. He clarified the EU’s position on relations with Russia. Moreover, he gave the Russians no opportunity to advance their long-term aim of breaking up the European Union by on the one hand attacking the EU while on the other hand appearing conciliatory toward individual member states.
The foreign minister returned to Finland to a hero’s welcome. He needed one after the recently concluded investigation into his role in repatriating women and children from ISIS camps in Syria. The euphoria about the visit had little to do with Navalny or the European Union. It had to do with a Finnish leader going to Russia and holding his own against his Russian counterpart. The hero’s welcome was part relief, part revenge, part catharsis, and part joy that a Finnish government publicly stood for human rights outside of the country.
When I teach about the European Union to my American students, they often wonder why countries would cede some of their sovereignty to an organization like the European Union. Smaller countries in the European Union are able to punch above their weight on the international stage. I tell them the story about the Bulgarian nurses working in Libya who were sentenced to death as scapegoats for the spread of HIV in Libyan hospitals in the early 2000s. Bulgaria alone could not get its citizens off death row, but the intervention of fellow member states of the EU forced Libya’s hand to release the nurses. As a member state of the European Union, Finland was not encountering Russia alone during Foreign Minister Haavisto’s visit. I highly doubt that if Finland were not an EU member, Foreign Minister Haavisto would have spent his country’s diplomatic capital in Russia defending human rights. Nothing in Finland’s policy to the eastern neighbor before EU membership in 1995 suggests that he would have.
Haavisto’s trip to St. Petersburg will not be the last high-stakes visit by a Finnish leader. Russia is an existential issue to Finland. To paraphrase one of those Finnish travelers to Russia, President J. K. Paasikivi, Russia might not always be a great power in the world, but it is always one to Finland.
It Can Happen and Has Happened in Finland
On Wednesday 6 January much of the rest of the world witnessed the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It was a natural outcome of the slow but steady process of delegitimizing democratic values and institutions that long preceded the Trump administration. What happened in Washington D.C. is likely just a first step in an armed insurgency that will grip this country for months if not years. I can see the United States having to confront a long wave of domestic terrorism like Britain, West Germany, Italy, and Spain had to in the 1970s and 1980s.
If this could happen in the world's leading democracy, can it happen in other democracies? Finns over the last few days has asked themselves if something like this could happen in Finland. With some exceptions, most media voices have concluded that it cannot. People are too well educated, social differences are too small, the country is less politically divided. Keep this last argument in mind.
Many have ignored that a violent attack on Finland's democracy has already happened. More than once. Finland’s proclamation of national independence in December 1917 was followed by civil war in January 1918. The country’s radical Marxists sought to overthrow the legally elected government by force. A little over a decade later those dissatisfied that the civil war had not completely cleansed the country of Marxists organized into the Lapua Movement. The spark for this mobilization occurred on 23-24 November 1929 when Finland’s Communist Youth League held a meeting in the village of Lapua. The selection of this location for the meeting was a deliberate provocation. Lapua lies in Ostrobothnia, Finland’s most politically conservative region. I write more about Ostrobothnia in an earlier blog post. Predictably, outraged local citizens broke up the meeting. Out of this action the Lapua Movement arose to eliminate Marxism “to the last vestige,” to quote its leader, Vihtori Kosola.
The movement pursued its goal by taking direct action against its enemies. The most frequent and best known form of action was kidnapping. Over the course of 1930-32, 254 victims consisting of Social Democrats, Communists, and other perceived enemies were kidnapped. Often the action ended in the victim standing somewhere on the Soviet side of Finland’s eastern border, where the kidnappers believed he should stay. On 7 July 1930, some 12,000 supporters of the movement marched on Helsinki. Obviously imitating the Italian Fascists’ march on Rome in 1922 that brought Mussolini to power, the demonstrators demanded legislation against the Left, or they would take matters into their own hands.
Many of Finland’s leaders reacted to the Lapua Movement’s rise with appeasement, if not tacit approval. The movement’s success in attracting supporters from the country’s two largest non-socialist parties, the National Coalition Party and the Agrarian League, held out the possibility of creating a large non-Socialist party that could rival the Social Democrats. The movement exploited a widespread view in White Finland that the danger to society came from the Left. Sympathizers did not want to see that the Lapua Movement was both anti-Marxist and anti-democratic.
In this atmosphere, the Lapua Movement pushed its agenda forward. In June 1930, the minority Government under Prime Minister Kyösti Kallio gave way to another minority Cabinet under the National Coalition Party’s P. E. Svinhufvud, the movement’s preferred candidate for prime minister. In order to realize the movement’s minimum demand of a total criminalization of Communist activity, President Lauri Kristian Relander called new parliamentary elections for October 1930. The two-thirds majority won by the non-Socialist parties stemmed from both greater cooperation and administrative measures to prevent the election of communists. The new Parliament then passed a series of laws formally outlawing communist activity.
This zenith of the Lapua Movement’s influence quickly turned into a steep decline. On 14 October 1930, military officers close to the movement organized the kidnapping of former president K. J. Ståhlberg and his wife, Ester. This action placed the movement beyond the pale of acceptability for many sympathizers. In the presidential election in February 1931, P. E. Svinhufvud was elected president. Although a popular figure in the Lapua Movement, he won the presidency in large part because President Relander had lost the support of his own party, the Agrarian League, for his reelection bid. Among the reasons for the party’s decision was Relander’s open sympathy for the Lapua Movement.
In a final act of desperation, the Lapua Movement at the end of February 1932 sought to employ illegal means to remove the very leaders they helped install. The leaders of this coup, headquartered in the southern village of Mäntsälä, called on the members of the Civil Guards (the country's volunteer military auxiliary) to join them in overthrowing the government. The overwhelming majority stayed home. On 2 March, President Svinhufvud, who had been elected with the support of the Lapua Movement, condemned the action in a radio speech. Realizing that they had overplayed their hand, the rebels quickly gave up on their attempt to end Finland’s democracy. After the Lapua Movement was banned by the same laws passed to suppress Communist activity, a new and more openly anti-democratic party developed, the Patriotic People’s League (IKL). This party was allowed to function, because it pledged to operate within the constitution. It participated in elections, becoming one of the smaller parties in Parliament. The IKL’s openly Fascist program attracted only a fraction of those who had supported the Lapua Movement in its heyday. As support for Fascism was growing in other parts of Europe, it was on the decline in Finland.
In the last month or so, many social media figures on the far right have attempted to rehabilitate the Lapua Movement. In the last week a picture of a police woman in the blue and black shirt of the Lapua movement has surfaced in social media. Just today in the news, a group of former members of the far-right Finns Party wants to create a party that will be known as the Blue and Black Movement. Blue and Black were the colors of the Lapua Movement and the Patriotic People's League. In the town of Lapua there is a Lapua Movement museum. On the other extreme, Finland is the only country that, thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, still has a Lenin museum.
Then there is the rise of the far-right Finns Party. This party, like Trump’s movement in the USA, has risen to the place of Finland’s largest party by mobilizing hate online. They have been able to change language. Few in Finland dare publicly to call the statements or actions by part members against foreigners racist anymore. The media and academia engage in tedious debates as to whether the party is far right or not. In a recent email exchange, a journalist from a major newspaper in Finland denied to me that the Finns Party was a far-right party. People have bought the party's canard that any criticism of the Finns Party is a restriction of the its supporters' freedom of speech. Political parties like the National Coalition Party and the Center Party (formerly the Agrarian League) joined the Finns Party in government 2015-2019. The the leader of the Finns Party, once convicted for incitement against a minority group (Finland’s Muslims), in 2019 called Donald Trump “the best thing that has happened to the United States and the Western world in a long time.” In November, over eighty million Americans begged to disagree. Last week he recanted that statement, but then dismissed the insurrection in Washington last week as a kind of hooliganism seen all over the world. Members of his party have engaged in all kinds of violent fantasies online.
Finland’s biggest challenge in confronting the far right is not the far right itself. For most of its existence as an independent country Finland has had a strong record in equality, rule of law, and inclusion. At the same time, Finns have imagined national unity in a very constrictive fashion. The civil war still casts a shadow. Even your most cosmopolitan or liberal Finn is still mentally in the trenches of the Winter War of 1939-40 as far as his or her country is concerned. This is a country that in 1978 once gave over eighty percent of its votes to one presidential candidate. The current president has approval ratings north of ninety percent. It is easy to be a progressive country when that country does not need to recognize difference. Political parties that have aimed to change the country radically have been brought into politics rather than excluded from it. When I think of the future of the Finns Party I think of how during the Cold War communists regularly participated in Finnish governments.
Most Finns outside of the far right find themselves stuck between their desire to maintain this high and frankly illusory national harmony and their desire to have a country that defends equality and difference. Many Finns think that they can have both by pursuing policies that reduce racism, sexism, and other bigotry without going openly against the bigots themselves. This stems from a larger liberal-left-green view in Finland that all national problems can be eliminated with yet another government program. The fact that the Finns Party gets its energy from opposing immigrants, people outside of the national community, makes this choice even harder. One must either defend the rights of someone outside of the national community or maintain national harmony with a fellow but extremist countryman. Appeasement is too often the choice made.
This kind of appeasement happened once before. It led dangerously close to the end of Finnish democracy.
1995--The Year Finland Opened Up
This concluding year 2020 has upended the lives of virtually every living person on earth. In all too many cases the upending resulted in death or long-term illness. Many lost their jobs. Educations have suffered. The trust in institutions that has been on the decline for decades went into freefall in many countries. The pandemic has revealed the vulnerabilities of all individuals, communities, nations, and our collective world. Another pandemic is just a matter of time. Will we learn from this one?
In terms of my Finnish history, I will remember this year 2020 as one in which I was not able to spend any time in Finland. Plans for research and teaching trips were made only to be canceled several times on account of Covid-19. During the pandemic I have frequently thought of 1995. Before this year, 1995 was the last in which I did not spend any time in Finland. It was one of the country’s most momentous years in the twentieth century.
The significance started on the first day of 1995, when Finland joined the European Union. This moment had been in the making for several years. The end of the Cold War forced not only Finland but also other Western European neutrals to reconsider their place in Europe. In January 1992, just days after the collapse of the USSR, President Mauno Koivisto proposed Finnish membership in the European Union. After approval by the Cabinet and Parliament, Finland opened accession talks with the EU. After completion of the accession treaty in 1994, 56.9% of voters in a consultative referendum approved membership. Parliament then approved membership 152-45. On 1 January 1995, Finland, along with Sweden and Austria, joined the European Union.
Many supporters of EU membership shared opponents’ concerns about Finland’s future in the union. Many feared that Germans and other foreigners would buy up the country, especially its summer cottages. Agriculture, heavily protected and subsidized, would face greater competition from other European countries. How much national sovereignty would be lost to the EU? Would Finns have to sacrifice their welfare state? Despite these fears, a majority of Finns embraced EU membership for two major reasons. First, membership could open new markets for a depressed economy. This Finnish depression is mentioned in a previous post. Second, membership promised to enhance national security in respect to a chaotic post-Soviet Russia without joining NATO.
From the standpoint of 2020, it appears that popular support in Finland is stronger than ever. Surveys over the last few years indicate that as many as 65-70% of Finns support EU membership. While indicative of majority support, opposition is suspected to be higher because of an unwillingness of opponents to express their views in surveys. Annual surveys by the Finnish Business Forum (EVA) since 1995 indicate that since 1995 support largely fluctuates 40-50% while opposition 20-30%. Moreover, membership has faced challenges in times of crisis such as in the economic crisis of 2008-2010 and the refugee crisis of 2015. Both events and their aftermaths contributed to the anti-EU and anti-foreigner Finns Party’s election victories in 2011, 2015, and 2019. Despite this opposition, I will be very surprised if in 2045 Finland is no longer in the European Union.
In March 1995, Finland had parliamentary elections. Since 1991 the country had been ruled by a nonsocialist government, the first of its kind since the 1930s. Since the late 1930s all of Finland’s majority governments had included socialist and nonsocialist parties. The nonsocialist government under Prime Minister Esko Aho aimed to pull Finland out of its depression. The government did so by a policy of austerity and selected tax cuts to spur economic growth. Like many governments that come to power in such economic situations, this one did the hard work without living to see the results. By 1995 Finns were tired of austerity and returned the Social Democratic Party to its long-standing position as the country’s largest party. New Prime Minister and SDP chair Paavo Lipponen formed a “rainbow government” with parties on the left including his party and the Left-Wing Alliance to the Greens, the Swedish People’s Party, and the conservative National Coalition Party. This coalition would rule Finland until 2003. The economy grew out of the depression and the government was thus able to alleviate the pain of austerity. But in many ways there was no return to the pre-depression world. Income equality would never return to pre-depression levels. Many of those who entered the labor market got jobs with less pay and less security. Older workers found it harder to find employment at all, a problem that the current government like previous ones is trying to solve. Many outsiders today who see Finland as a great model of social justice compare it to other countries, not the Finland of thirty years ago.
Then in May 1995 another historical milestone was reached: Finland’s national hockey team won for the first time the World Ice Hockey Championship. For North Americans, this annual tournament is overshadowed by the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs happening at the same time. For European hockey, this tournament is the climax of the hockey season. Led by a Swedish coach, Finland beat Sweden 4-1 in the gold medal game in Stockholm. Winning the championship for the first time was one thing, winnning against a historical rival was another, winning it in the rival’s home venue was yet another.
I see 1995 as an opening to a long decade in which Finland opened itself up to the world, and more importantly, Finns opened Finland to themselves. In 1996 a black woman, Lola Oudosoga was selected Miss Finland. In the year 2000, Finland elected Tarja Halonen as its first female president. In 2003 Paavo Lipponen was replaced by the chair of the Center Party, Anneli Jäätteenmäki, the country first woman prime minister. Scandal forced her to resign after 68 days in office. In 2006, Finland won the Eurovision song contest with Lordi, the over-the-top ensemble of heavy metal monsters. This period of breaking barriers ended around 2008 with the crises of the European and world economy as well as the worldwide backlash against globalization and increasing pluralism that is still with us today.
This is how I see 1995 twenty-five years later. How will I see 2020 in 2045? Historians are awful futurologists. All I know is that I’ll know how I see 2020 in 2045 if I live into 2045. For now I wish you the best in 2021.
For those of you interested in the Finnish tradition of the Christmas Peace, my colleague Mia Korpiola has written about it in a blog posting in Finnish and English. Have a look.
Paradises Gained and Lost
On Sunday 6 December Finland will recognize 103 years of independence. This year’s celebration will certainly will stand out in national memory for years to come. No ball at the Presidential Palace. No traditional student marches through the streets of Helsinki. Even the far-right ultranationalist marches that have become such a visible part of independence days over the last decade are canceled.
One of the large narratives I see in Finland’s history as an independent country is one of paradises gained and lost. In this blog post I will focus on the years since I first came to Finland.
As I touched on in a previous post, the 1970s and the 1980s were a period in which Finns achieved a sense of unending prosperity. The wood products industry led the way. Industries ranging from shipbuilding to Rapala lures found foreign markets. Industrial peace and broad distribution of national prosperity was advanced by close cooperation between business, labor, and government. Finland caught up with its Scandinavian neighbors in creating a comprehensive welfare state. Trade with the USSR guaranteed markets for many Finnish businesses. By the mid-1980s there was a strong sense that Finland was a “completed” country and that to be born in Finland was to have “won the lottery of life.” I remember in the summer of 1986 reading an interview with Väinö Linna, Finland’s most influential writer of the postwar era, in which he expressed his opposition to Finland accepting refugees. Finland was a “completed” country he said. These outsiders would just mess it up. He represented a widespread if not majority view at the time.
This paradise collapsed starting in 1989. In a nutshell, paradise was lost because of a quick and not well thought out deregulation of the banking industry that encouraged Finns to take on debt. In particular businesses took out debt in foreign currency using the strong Finnish mark as a hedge. Then a perfect storm occurred: in the second half of 1989 the bubble in real estate and stocks broke. At the same time, Finland’s overvalued currency and rising labor costs were rendering exports less competitive in world markets. In 1991, Finland lost one of its largest trading partners with the collapse of the USSR.
In this gloomy economic situation, people and businesses rushed to pay off their debts by selling their assets. This further depressed the price of real estate and stocks. Individuals could not get out from under their debts. Heavily indebted businesses began to eliminate jobs and file for bankruptcy. Bad loans pushed many banks to the brink of insolvency. Traditionally, Finns responded to such economic downturns by devaluing the mark as a means of making Finnish export goods more competitive abroad, thus spurring employment at home. Devaluation in this situation threatened to depress the economy more since so much debt was in foreign currency. A devalued mark would make paying off debts in foreign currency even more expensive. With unemployment increasing to record levels, the government under Prime Minister Esko Aho in November 1991 approved a twelve percent devaluation. In September of the next year, the mark was allowed to float freely on world markets without intervention from the Bank of Finland, resulting in a de facto devaluation.
In the midst of this lost paradise, another one was being created. The government of Esko Aho (1991-1995) cut government spending heavily in order keep the social costs of nearly twenty percent unemployment from bankrupting the country. But it made increased investments in the new information economy. The Aho government understood that while the depression would someday end, the industrial jobs lost would not return. A bet was placed on Finland’s small but innovative information technology sector by investing public money in research and development.
The engine that would pull this new economy was a firm that when I came to Finland in the early 1980s was known more for producing toilet paper and tires than electronics—Nokia. From about 1995 onward Finland’s new paradise was driven by Nokia and many other companies in the information technology field. In the year 2000, Nokia was ranked fifth among the world’s ten most valuable brand names—the only non-American company on the list. By the year 2006, Nokia’s total turnover was more than Finland’s state budget. By 2010 Nokia had to start competing with new Asian companies such as Samsung. The bigger problem was Nokia's first dismissive, then slow, and ultimately unsuccessful moves to adapt to new touchscreen technology pioneered by companies such as Apple. By 2013 Nokia had sold off what was left of its mobile telephone business.
Finland’s current version of paradise is not based on agriculture, industry, or wireless technology. It is based on the newest growth industry—branding. Over the last ten years Finland has managed to brand itself as a paradise in education, equality, and social justice. A large segment of the world’s population hungry for a more equitable world have looked to Finland as a beacon of hope. Schools are filled with foreign visitors. News organizations such as the BBC have focused on Finland’s achievements in gender equality.
On this Independence Day in 2020, I am concerned that this current paradise will collapse under the weight of the same kind of national hubris that ended previous ones. While branding is often correctly seen as superficial and manipulative, the values behind Finland’s brand—social justice, equality of opportunity, rule of law, gender equality—are substantial and should be enduring. They only endure if people are ready to defend them rather than expect that the trend toward a less equal world will never reach Finland. While Finland’s brand has grown, so have economic disparities and educational problems. The collective will to advance social justice has weakened, especially since the advancement of social justice now means including people whose ancestors are not from Finland. The part of the population that wants to jettison the values behind Finland’s brand is growing. According to the most recent polls before Independence Day 2020 the far-right Finns Party is the most popular party in the country. This party has been able to increase its support by exploiting xenophobia and a desire for a less socially cohesive society. This party has made its support clear to increasingly authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary. Many of the policies and ideas of the Finns Party are shared by people who currently do not support it in opinion polls.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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