Blog--My Finnish History
Forty years ago today I boarded a plane in Seattle, Washington to Helsinki, Finland. My Finnish history began. Many things have changed in Finland over the last 40 years, changes I try to examine in this blog. There are many things that attracted me to Finland and kept me returning that not longer exist. The biggest loss has been the end of the culture of vastaantulo or meeting in the middle. If you came to the country as an outsider, learned the language(s) and culture, you would eventually attract a support system of people willing to help. If I came to Finland today, learning the language and culture would likely not give me the support system and opportunities it did for me starting 40 years ago. Finland has become a more transactional culture, and seeing an outsider learn the language and culture is not worthy of transacting, especially in what became my profession. English only pliis. I am fortunate to have come to Finland when I did.
The following are two blog postings from two years ago when I opened this blog in which I recall August 1982 in Finland.
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.
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 toeing 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.
As a historian, I am sensitive to how communities reinterpret historical events to make sense of and or justify current decisions. In May 2022 Finland’s parliament debated the country’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). By a vote of 188-8, Parliament approved of the government’s proposal to seek NATO membership. As the vote suggests, there was little debate over whether Finland should join the alliance. For many members of parliament, as well as much of the population at large, the frame of reference for joining NATO consisted of both the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the Russian invasion of Finland in November 1939, known as the Winter War of 1939-40.
It is virtually impossible to underestimate the significance of the Winter War in Finns’ understanding of their national history and current affairs. It was indeed a heroic struggle against a country many times its size in land, population, and military resources. But it was more than that. In an interview for the history podcast The Peel in June, I called the Winter War Finland’s creation story. Finland emerged independent in 1917 not out of national unity but national division. Parliament approved the declaration of independence by a narrow margin. In January 1918 civil war erupted between supporters of the non-socialist government and Marxist rebels. The government or “White” forces defeated the Reds within four months. The underlying political division lasted for years. The political parties that represented the winning side in the Civil War found it difficult to form lasting governing coalitions. Even before independence the country’s politics had been divided over language rights and privileges for the country’s Finnish and Swedish-speaking communities.
The outbreak of the Winter War healed these divisions. The Winter War was the glorious war of national independence that the conflict of 1918 was not. It was the first collective achievement by Finns as an independent nation. A national identity based on perpetual national unity “the spirit of the Winter War” was created. An insular and sometimes aggressive us-versus-them attitude would guide Finns’ dealings with outsiders and the outside world.
In addition to Finland’s creation story, the Winter War became Finland’s Rosetta stone for political decision making. The Winter War was used to justify many aspects of public policy ranging from Finland’s decision to join Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941 to postwar high agricultural subsidies to restrictive asylum policies for decades after the war.
Finland’s Cold War foreign policy of appeasing the USSR was justified by the experience of the Winter War. During Winter War, Finns believed that they were fulfilling their self-appointed national mission as “the outpost of Western Civilization.” At the end of the Winter War in March 1940, Finland’s commander-in-chief General (later Marshal) Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim issued an order of the day to the nation. In it he recapitulated Finland’s mission as Western Civilization’s outpost. He then proclaimed that “but also we know that we have paid to the last penny the debt that we have had to the West.” In other words, Finland no longer needed to pursue a foreign policy out of a sense of ideological indebtedness to the West, a policy that left Finland largely alone to fight the USSR. This phrase by Mannerheim was used as a justification for Finland’s policy toward the USSR during the Cold War. The wartime sacrifices of the Finnish people were to be used to find the best accommodation with the USSR without ideological affiliation. Finland’s most visible diplomat of the Cold War era, Max Jakobson (whose books Diplomacy of the Winter War and Finland Survived are still worthwhile reading) modified Mannerheim’s statement for foreign audiences to “We have paid our debt to the West to the final drop of blood.” In the Cold War discourse, Mannerheim’s understanding of Finland as part of the West was ignored.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finns returned to their Rosetta Stone. On the surface, Russia’s invasion had many parallels to the Winter War. The Winter War, which for decades had been interpreted as a justification for Finland to stay out of alliances, was now used as a justification to join NATO. In the parliamentary debate over NATO membership, 157 of Parliament’s 200 members chose to speak about NATO membership. Of these, forty-seven referred to the Winter War in one way or another. Some directly referred to the conflict. Others spoke of their great-grandparents having to leave their homes after the new border was drawn in 1940. The most common reference to the Winter War was a quote by another Finnish general and veteran of the Winter War, Adolf Ehrnrooth, “never again alone.” In other words, Finland must not find itself in a position in which it has to face Russia without allies. “Never again alone” replaced having paid the debt to the West as the lesson the country wanted to draw from the Winter War. It has become a wider national rallying cry for NATO membership.
But Mannerheim’s order of the day of March 1940 was not completely forgotten in the parliamentary debate. One member of Parliament even quoted from Mannerheim’s order of the day, “We have a historic task, that we are still fulfilling, the protection of Western Civilization, which for centuries has been our inheritance.” The MP omitted the rest of Mannerheim's sentence: “but also we know that we have paid to the last penny the debt that we have had to the West.” When the past gets reinterpreted, especially for political aims, context and nuance are often victims.
In American English the idiom “to turn on a dime” means the ability to change directions instantly. The Finnish equivalent phrase is “to turn the sled (kääntää kelkka).” The Finnish version tends to imply more a person’s or a community’s immediate change in direction from strongly held convictions. The American phrase can be applied to people and machines.
Turning the sled is an important figure of speech to keep in mind when investigating independent Finland’s history. Despite Finland’s self-image and international reputation as a country with stable and predictable politics, change in Finland—especially in respect to foreign policy—often has come in quick diametric turns of the nation’s sled.
The latest example of this was Finland’s decision to seek membership in NATO, a topic I wrote more about in a previous blog entry. As late as January 2022, only about a quarter of Finns polled supported membership in the military alliance. Official foreign policy since the early 2000s maintained an option to join NATO, but few seemed interested in exercising it. When the current coalition government was constituted in 2019, only the smallest of the five parties, the Swedish People’s Party, supported NATO membership. In his time as president since 2012 President Sauli Niinistö has often stated that he wanted NATO to become more “European” before Finland would join.
All of this was before Russia’s attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Immediately Finland turned the sled in respect to Russia. People who opposed NATO membership before the invasion now are doubling down on membership in NATO. People are running away from a policy of neutrality that was for decades supported overwhelmingly throughout society. People who cannot run fast enough risk getting blackballed.
History does not repeat itself. If it were the case that indeed today repeats yesterday, we would still be in the Stone Age. We can uncover patterns from the past and ask why. The events of the last three months in Finland share patterns with many other turns of the national sled. All of them have to do to varying degrees with relations with Russia. In the fall of 1917 The Grand Duchy of Finland, still a part of the Russian Empire, was led by nonsocialist political parties that opposed a unilateral declaration of independence from Russia. These parties wanted to negotiate a new relationship with Russia. When the Bolsheviks took over on 7 November 1917, the same nonsocialist parties then unilaterally declared national independence on 6 December 1917. The upshot of this turning of the sled was that Finland’s government quickly learned that few countries were willing to recognize Finland’s independence until Bolshevik Russia did. At the end of December, a Finnish delegation in St. Petersburg received from Lenin recognition of Finland’s independence.
Another quick turn was to happen less than a year later. After a short and bloody civil war in the first half of 1918, Finland’s government, now backed by Imperial Germany, looked for a German prince to serve as the country’s new monarch. Parliament elected Frederick Charles of Hesse king on 9 October 1918. The new king never made it to Finland and Finland never became a kingdom. Germany sued for peace in World War I on 11 November 1918. Not wanting to be caught on the side of the losers, the political establishment quickly jettisoned Frederick Charles and moved toward a republic, a course with the aim of improving Finland’s relations with the winners of World War I. A republican constitution was completed in July 1919.
The next turn came in the summer and fall of 1944. Finland participated in Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941 to regain lands lost in the Winter War of 1939. With Soviet troops now pushing into the Karelian Isthmus in the summer of 1944, Finland’s leaders decided to leave the war. In an emergency meeting Finland’s Parliament on 4 August 1944 elected the country’s commander-in-chief, Marshal Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, president of the republic. The man charged with leading troops into battle was now charged with leading the country into peace. In September 1944, Finland sued for peace with the USSR. In order to meet one of the conditions of the peace, Finland declared war on Germany. The war with Germany consisted of evicting German troops stationed in northern Finland. In its eight-month long withdrawal into Norway, German troops burned Finnish Lapland to the ground.
The next immediate turn occurred on 19 August 1991. On that day Mikael Gorbachev was overthrown in a coup. Even though the coup lasted just fours days, Finland’s leaders, many of whom for decades had hitched their political fortunes to the wagon of appeasing the Soviet Union, decided that now was the time to leave Moscow’s power-political sphere of influence. In January 1992 Finland applied for membership in the European Union. Before the coup attempt and the subsequent end of the USSR in December 1991, membership in the European Union (then the European Community) did not command a majority in opinion polls, much like support for NATO membership had been before the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
So what can one learn from this pattern of quick turns? There are several. First, a small country has to be agile to survive, especially when it is the neighbor of a great power. Second, Finland’s place in Europe has been and will continue to be to a great extent determined by what happens in Moscow. Third, the public quick turnings of the sled examined here often were preceded by work either in the background and or completely behind the scenes. For example, Finland has had widespread cooperation with NATO since the 1990s. Finnish troops have participated in NATO operations ranging from Kosovo to Afghanistan. While Finns have been rejecting NATO membership for decades, at the same time they have taken steps that have made applying for membership a seeming matter of course. Marshal Mannerheim’s election to the presidency in 1944 was made possible by his predecessor Risto Ryti, who personally promised the Germans that he would make no separate peace with the USSR. When the time came to negotiate with Moscow, Ryti left without having tied the hands of his successor.
These turnings of the sled have created deep trench-like skids that have made it difficult to master Finland’s past. In other words, these turns have been made not only by breaking with past, but also forgetting it. It was not until the 1960s that the events of 1917-18 started to be widely discussed. Some Finnish historians as well as much of the general public still refuse to use the word “ally” to describe their country’s wartime relationship with Nazi Germany, hiding behind the legal fig leaf that Finland and Germany never signed a formal alliance. Discussion concerning the Cold War era aims tends more to indict individual lackeys of Moscow than to examine why an entire country bought into a policy of appeasing Moscow. Time will tell what kind of trenches the current turn of the sled will create to separate us from Finland’s past.
A short note of self-promotion: I will be teaching my course “Finland Prehistory to Present” for the Helsinki Summer University 30 May-9 June. See Summer University homepage hsky.fi for more details.
Mikael Agricola: Father of Written Finnish, Agent of the Swedish King, European Humanist
Today April 9 Finland celebrates Mikael Agricola Day. Mikael Agricola (c. 1510-1557) is recognized primarily for his achievement in establishing Finnish as a literary language. The pastor and later bishop of the Diocese of Turku in Finland created a body of sacred literature in Finnish. Among his works are a spelling primer for Finnish (1543), a book of prayers (1544), and the New Testament in Finnish (1548). Agricola’s works were the first published books in Finnish.
What remains in the shadow of Agricola’s literary achievement is his advancement of the three larger roles that Finland’s Western Church has played in Finland’s history. By Western Church I mean the medieval Catholic Church until the 1500s and then the Lutheran Church that replaced it. In Finland’s history the Western Church has supported the interests of temporal or civil power, it has worked to create a separate Finnish identity, and has been an important and sometimes only conduit of outside cultural and intellectual influences.
From the time it began to establish itself in Finland in the 1100s, the Western Church has worked closely with the Finland’s rulers, a relationship that has become more distant only in recent decades. The introduction of the Lutheran reformation in the sixteenth century was made possible by a king who wanted to take the church’s wealth and a new generation of clergymen who wanted to make the church less opulent. Agricola’s oldest surviving completed manuscript is not a work of religious literature, but rather an accounting in 1542 of the church’s wealth for King Gustav Vasa. The account book would be used by the king for future confiscations of the church’s wealth. Several years later, Agricola died while performing another service for Gustav Vasa. In the fall of 1556, Gustav sent a delegation to Moscow for peace talks to end a war that had been raging for almost two years. Continuing a long-standing tradition in the Swedish kingdom’s diplomacy with Russia, the Swedish delegation included ecclesiastical leaders. As a member of the delegation, Agricola brought to the negotiating table his firm command of a variety of languages: Latin, Greek, and German, in addition to Finnish and Swedish. At the outset of negotiations with the Russians, it was often unclear what language or languages would be most useful. On the return journey home after signing a peace treaty, Agricola became sick. He and the others in his delegation had suffered months of abuse from their Russian hosts. Agricola died on 9 April 1557 shortly after crossing the border back into Finland.
While serving the Swedish king, Agricola like generations of clergymen before him saw Finland as a distinct region within the Swedish realm. The spread of Western Christianity over most of Finland ensured that Finland would become part of Western Europe and not Russia—a reason why to this day Finns both in popular and scholarly memory have a fondness for the medieval Catholic era not found in many Protestant countries. During the Middle Ages, native-born Finns came to dominate the clergy and high offices. This predominance of local Finnish leadership continued into the Lutheran era. Agricola contributed to this local Finnish identity through his publications in Finnish. He not only used his works to establish a written language for Finnish speakers, but also he sought to articulate a sense of place for Finns. In his introduction to his New Testament, Agricola summarizes Finland’s history. He goes on to list Finland’s various regions and historical provinces. In the introduction of his translation of the Psalms, Agricola lists Finland’s pre-Christian gods and their functions. This list is still a foundational source for scholars. With these history and geography lessons Agricola teaches his readers that they have a distinct past and space of their own, but a space and past clearly within the Swedish kingdom.
Agricola was one of several young Finnish clergymen of his generation who studied at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, the intellectual bridgehead of the Lutheran Reformation. High among the items on the Lutheran reform agenda was the transformation of worship from Latin into the vernacular—the language of the people. Wittenberg was also a center of the new intellectual movement of humanism. Contrary to widespread understandings of the term today, humanism in the context of the sixteenth century (and for centuries afterwards) does not mean secularism or an avoidance of religion. Humanism in the sixteenth century was a scholarly movement that emphasized the study of the humanities—history, philosophy, as well as languages and literatures. Humanists sought to go the original sources of Western thought and religion rather than relying on centuries of commentary on them. They wanted to cultivate existing languages as well as improve knowledge of the biblical languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Agricola among other contemporaries brought both Lutheranism and humanism to Finland. Both humanism and Lutheran reform guided Agricola’s work in the Finnish language.
Agricola belongs to the pantheon of Finland’s national heroes. He created a written language that allowed people to worship God in their own language. His work over the long haul protected Finnish as a minority language in the Swedish kingdom. Although Finnish orthography has changed much since Agricola’s time, over seventy percent of the words used by Agricola are still used in Finnish. Much of the rest of Agricola’s text is understandable to a reader of modern Finnish, especially if the reader can decipher Agricola’s neologisms derived from Swedish.
I frequently wonder what Agricola would think as Finns—both Finnish- and Swedish-speaking--are increasingly willing to allow the takeover of the new Latin—English—in their daily communications, business transactions, and education. I consider my mastery of the Finnish language as my greatest intellectual achievement—greater than my doctorate or my books. Will I still be able to use this achievement in twenty years?
Finland: To NATO or not to NATO?
In my class “Germany since 1815” that I teach at Oklahoma State University, I start my lecture on Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the 1990 song and video “Wind of Change” by the German band Scorpions. The song drew its inspiration from the fall of Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Europe. The song would become an anthem for subsequent changes in the world during the early 1990s, such as the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians and the end of apartheid in South Africa. At the time, it seemed that all of the world’s problems were all coming to an end. The political scientist Francis Fukyama proclaimed an “end to history” in the sense that our understanding of the past was based on ideological conflicts that were now resolved. The world seemed to be on an inexorable road to an eternal order of democracy, rule of law, international mobility, and free markets. As a twentysomething at the time whose career depended on international mobility, my future seemed bright.
That age of naïve bliss lasted for about a decade. It started to end on 11 September 2001. For the two decades since, a steady but determined reaction has reversed the course the world was on in the 1990s. The world has become much more authoritarian, arbitrary, aggressive, and closed. Despite all of the push in Finland to “internationalize,” I find the country in many respects much more closed to me than I did 15 years ago. I am not the only foreigner with long-standing ties to Finland who feels this.
At the end of the Cold War Finland had to redefine itself in Europe, a topic that I have touched on in some previous blog posts. Since the end of the Cold War, Finns have debated Finnish membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Support for NATO membership has never gone much above 25%. Even political parties that support NATO membership, such as the conservative National Coalition Party and the Swedish People’s Party, have many supporters who do not support or only conditionally support NATO membership. Although support for NATO membership has been low, there has been widespread support for Finnish cooperation with NATO ranging from operations in Afghanistan to Kosovo. Finland recently bought the American F-35 as its next generation of fighter aircraft. Finland along with Sweden participated in meetings of NATO’s Atlantic Council this week. All of these actions taken by Finnish governments have had widespread support even among opponents of NATO membership.
Since the end of the Cold War, Finland has had two good reasons to stay out of NATO. First, Finnish membership in NATO has meant that Finland would have to bear the immediate burden of defending half of NATO’s border with Russia. The Baltic States, Poland, and Norway would defend pieces of the other half. Finland has a justifiably proud history of military non-alignment enforced by a strong commitment to national defense. Finland’s only experience in a military coalition, that led by Nazi Germany, did not end well. Would NATO really defend a distant corner of Europe from Soviet aggression?
Second, Finland has been able to rely on Russia’s tendency to see Finland in primarily defensive terms. Finland, unlike Ukraine, cannot be easily used as a staging ground for significant Russian offensive operations into other parts of Europe. Finland has not been worth the Russian geopolitical investment that other border areas have been. For example, in September 1944 the Soviets agreed to peace with Finland without requiring unconditional surrender by and full occupation of Finland: getting to Berlin was more important than getting to Helsinki. Imperial Russia 1809-1917 and the Soviet Union after the Cold War largely left Finns to their internal devices while keeping the country’s foreign affairs within Russia’s power-political sphere of influence. In the hands of a perceived enemy power, Finland can pose a threat to Russia. Concerns of Finland falling into enemy hands led Russia to reduce Finland’s autonomous status in the Russian Empire in the years 1890-1914. Security concerns drove the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland in 1939, an event that has for many Finns parallels to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. That Russian paranoid action in 1939 then moved Finland into the arms of a real threat to the USSR: Nazi Germany, a collaboration that ended in military defeat. Finns with justification have come to consider any alliance as more likely weakening rather than strengthening Finland in respect to its biggest threat to national security.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has obliterated these two justifications for staying out of NATO. In respect to the first reason, if Russia does conquer Ukraine, Finland as a NATO member would no longer have half of the alliance’s border with Russia. Finland would hold a much smaller part of a border that will run from the Artic Sea to the Black Sea. This calculation includes Belarus’ border with NATO. Instead of being a possibly peripheral part of NATO’s overall strategy before the invasion of Ukraine, Finland as a NATO member would be at the heart of the alliance’s mission of defending its eastern border. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has refocused NATO on Europe. Outcomes other than a complete and clean Russian conquest, such as a long-running guerilla war or a negotiated settlement will result in Russian expansion in eastern Europe. Even if Russia turned tail and withdrew from Ukraine today it is unlikely that Russia will be seen as a reliable partner in building European security.
As far as the second reason is concerned, the invasion of Ukraine along with previous actions in Georgia, Moldova, and Belarus suggest that Russia under Putin does not see any of its European neighbors in defensive terms, especially those neighbors that are not members of NATO. Putin’s speech on the evening of the invasion envisioned a recreation of the Russian Empire—an empire that once included Finland. Over the last month Finland has rejected Russian demands that it pledge to never join NATO—the same demands Russia made on Ukraine. As I was writing this post, Russia issued the threat of "military and political consequences" if Finland and Sweden decide to join NATO.
Any formal accession of Finland into the alliance will take months and maybe longer after formal application for membership. If Finland were attacked by Russia today, it would surely receive support from NATO, the European Union, and Sweden.
Finland’s policy of armed neutrality has served it well. Neutrality is a significant part of how I have imagined Finland for some forty years. The strong arguments for an effective policy no longer apply. It is time for Finland to seek NATO membership.
Silence pervades Finland’s culture. Popular activities such as mushroom picking, fishing, cross-country skiing, and orienteering are conducted with few words. The stereotypical Finn is taciturn. The German poet Berthold Brecht, a refugee in Finland for a short time during the Second World War, concluded that Finns “are silent in two languages.” Finns like to consider their culture of silence as a function of a larger culture that eschews artifice. But just as words can hurt, so can silence. Outsiders who say anything critical or unorthodox about Finland often experience toxic silence.
The silence takes many forms ranging from the cold lack of response to a comment at a meeting over coffee to no response to a social media post, a silence made deafening when a Finn makes a similar post and gets lots of likes and comments. The momentary silence can turn into permanent shunning. I often think that if I stopped talking to every Finn who said something critical about the United States, I would have nobody to talk to in Finland.
Over the last few weeks I have discussed with others of foreign background who have given interviews to the Finnish media in which we shared negative and common experiences concerning Finns’ attitudes and actions toward foreigners. We all experienced several cases in which in the printed interview, our critical comments were edited out, leaving us looking like clueless foreigners and or the uncritical “Suomi-fani” (“Finland fan”) Finns expect all foreigners to be. I once gave a three-hour interview to a Finnish journalist who was writing a book about the Nordic welfare state, a book that became a best-seller in the United States. In the interview I dared to call into question the durability of the universal welfare state in the face of the decades-long neoliberal onslaught that has weakened it. None of the interview made it into the book or even the acknowledgements. I obviously got in the way of upholding the narrative sold to foreigners of Finland as a perfect place. I always acknowledge people and institutions who have given me significant time, even if I did not find the effort behind the time helpful. In fairness some Finnish publications have interviewed me and have printed my critical takes. I have over the years found publications that have published my opinion pieces without altering their content. Nonetheless, Finns often label my writing whether opinion pieces or scholarly writing a “foreign view” or “nothing new.” A foreigner can never know more or differently about Finland than a Finn can.
Then there is the verbalized silencing that I call Finnsplaining, yes, the relative of mansplaining. Finnsplaining occurs when an outsider says something that a Finn thinks threatens the national narrative assigned to foreigners. Like mansplaining, Finnsplaining is meant to silence and reassert authority; a reminder to outsiders that they need to adhere to the narrative given by Finns to foreigners about Finland, regardless of their own experience. It is meant to assert the epistemological superiority of the Finn over the foreigner in matters related to Finland. One time several years ago I had my bicycle stolen in Finland. When I shared this incident with my Finnish coworkers a common response was to assure me how uncommon my misfortune was because Finns are so honest. I was supposed to think that Finns were incorruptibly honest because Finns told me to do so, regardless of my experience. Meanwhile, I was reading in the newspapers about the growth in bicycle thefts in the country over the previous years.
Finnsplaining often consists of blaming foreigners for any bad experiences they have in Finland. The foreigner has a bad attitude, can’t take a joke, is ungrateful, or does not understand the Finns. An offended foreigner is often asked to be forgiving because Finns are shy and or that immigration is “new” to Finland. Yet another kind of Finnsplaining is mutkuttelu or whataboutism. Finland does not have a problem because other countries have it. Once a journalist responded to my concerns about xenophobia in Finland by stating “Well, the Finnish immigrants in Stockholm get treated as poorly as Somalis in Helsinki.” Racism in Finland is relativized into harmlessness. Finns who read this blog post will likely respond that Finns themselves who do not adhere to the national orthodoxy are often silenced. True, a topic for another blog post! But do two wrongs make a right?
Every year for the last two decades millions of euros have been spent on elaborate and ineffective plans for integrating people of foreign background. In some cases, it seems that the goal is to employ Finns rather than immigrants. Here is a free plan for integration from a researcher who has been living this topic for decades: stop weaponizing silence. Now. Instead, utilize silence as a tool for listening and inclusion. It might be uncomfortable for a moment, but the person speaking likely has been in a state of discomfort for years. Take the examples of my Finnish colleagues and friends who have patiently listened and discussed my views of the country for decades without toxic silence or Finnsplaining. They have not melted or lost their sense of nationhood. They have the superpower of empathy.
For those of you Finns who think I just arrived in the country and can thus dismiss what I have written, klick the link Blog--My Finnish History below for 40 years of dealing with Finland.
The Summer of 2021
At this time last year I closed out 2020 on this blog with the hope that I would be able to visit Finland in 2021. The year 2020 had been the first year since 1995 in which I did not spend a day in Finland. The outlook for 2021 was very uncertain: vaccines were not yet widely available. Would they be effective? Would countries open their borders to the vaccinated? Would I want to go to the other side of the world only to have to stay in a room due to quarantines and lockdowns?
Every day from the beginning of January 2021 I followed daily the newsfeed dedicated to the corona virus on the websites of Finland’s biggest daily Helsingin sanomat and the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (Yle). Every few days I would check in with the website of the Finnish Border Guard. I followed these sources out of an interest about Finland’s response to the virus as well as a desire to know when a trip might be possible after classes ended here in May. I followed the situation with greater attention when I got my second shot at the end of March.
Throughout the world the pandemic has forced people to draw new boundaries. These boundaries often reflect larger long-developing and previously unarticulated mental landscapes. For Finns and Finnish officialdom in particular the pandemic has revealed a significant change in how they have viewed the world. From the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War Finns saw themselves as outside of Europe. In the 1980s I would frequently be asked in Finland if I had ever been to Europe. In the final analysis what really mattered to Finns was their place and status in respect to two countries—the USSR and the USA. Europe was an area of Cold War division and possible entanglement.
In the last two decades, the horizon consisting of the Washington-Moscow axis has been replaced by the European Union. The pandemic has starkly revealed that. For the first half of 2021, Finland’s border was closed with some fluctuating exceptions. What was consistent and for me frustrating was that information concerning closures focused almost always on Finland’s “internal border” or its border with other EU member states. It was as if people did not exist on other continents. This EU-centrism has continued even as Finland has opened its borders. In September Finland stated to adopt the electronic Corona virus passport used in the European Union. Currently one needs to show the passport to get into restaurants and large events. An official decision to allow people vaccinated outside of the European Union to enter these premises with their national vaccination documentation was not made until last week.
Until the end of August, one from outside of the EU could only enter the country with special permission. With the academic year starting here in the middle of August, I planned to leave for Finland in the middle of July for two reasons: research work for my current book project and the course that I teach on Finland’s history at the Helsinki Summer University. I was denied entry for the first reason but allowed entry for the second. The long 24-hour journey from here to Helsinki almost did not get beyond the airport in Oklahoma City. Although Finland now allowed non-Finnish citizens to enter the country with special permission, Finnish officials did not relay their decision to the airlines. The inability to disseminate information has been a widespread problem in Finnish officialdom during the whole pandemic. After waiting for an hour at the ticket counter as the agents called central management, I was finally let on the plane.
Little did I know that the incident in Oklahoma City was going to be the hardest part of getting to Finland. When I arrived I showed my vaccination card to an official and then my permission papers at passport control. Between the two checkpoints I walked through a virtually empty airport in July, normally vacation season.
On my arrival, it looked like Finland and the world had a grip on the pandemic. Within two weeks, the delta variant had arrived at a time when Finns participate in large events such as music festivals. Many Finns had not yet been able to get their second shot. Most under thirty had not yet had their first shot. This convergence of circumstances has led to a spike in cases that continues to the current moment. My course that started at the beginning of August had both an in-person and on-line option. On the day of the first lecture some 40 people participated online and one was present in person. In the following lectures I spoke to an empty room with at least forty online. Rules still required that I lecture with a mask in case someone came into the lecture hall.
One day historians will examine the world history of Covid-19. I hope they take into account local and national differences. Although at the time of my stay in Finland the rates of vaccination in Finland were lower than in the United States, in many ways felt much safer in Finland than in the US and Oklahoma in particular. Mask wearing was mandatory in more public places and most people wore masks even when it was just recommended. Most people wore the blue disposable surgical masks. In America I had been used to people wearing masks as a fashion statement. I was able to find some nice Finnish design masks made by Finlayson four for ten euros. This is probably the only time I will ever use the words Finlayson and bargain in the same sentence. The only place in which I felt like I was in a koronalinko (literally corona centrifuge, a place where spread takes place) was on the subway in Helsinki. Particular attention was given to hand washing. One could not step into a building without encountering dispensers of hand sanitizer. In the case of one grocery store I frequented there were dispensers in the store’s vestibule, then again as one entered the store proper. Then there were more dispensers at the checkout counter. And if you tried to pay in cash you got a dirty look from the cashier.
Upon leaving Finland I had to do what anyone entering the United States has to do regardless of vaccine status: get a PCR test for Covid. I tested negative. At the same time I was trying to come to grips with the situation I would be facing upon returning home: the start of a new semester at my university where all Covid restrictions were removed despite the spread of the delta variant. As I printed off the negative test result I jokingly thought that a positive result would not have been a bad thing. I would have had to stay in Finland longer and avoid what was indeed chaos at work.
After the last two years, I take no future travel as guaranteed. I hope to be in Finland for research, teaching, and friends in 2022.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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