The Talk

The early 1980s represented one of the tensest periods in the Cold War. The USSR was in Afghanistan. In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States with promises to enhance America’s military strength against a country he dubbed an evil empire. NATO was in the process of deploying medium-range missiles. In September 1983 the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner. In November 1983, the Soviet Union briefly interpreted a routine NATO military exercise as the beginning of a nuclear attack.

I flew to Finland in August 1982 with fellow high school exchange students from the western US and western Canada. Upon arriving at the airport in Helsinki, we were put on busses and taken to a school for a week of orientation before spreading out across the country. My first meal there was certainly an orientation. I took from the buffet table what I thought was milk and Salisbury steak. It was buttermilk and liver, two foods I never remember having previously. The organizers of the orientation had already exhorted us several times not to waste any food, so I ate my meal. The liver was good. I have never had buttermilk since.

The orientation’s program consisted of language training and several presentations about Finland. One of the presentations was given by a senior official in Finland’s foreign ministry. He talked about Finland’s foreign policy and in particular about Finland’s relationship with the Soviet Union. The official told us that, contrary to what we might have learned in our home countries, the USSR did not have any undue influence over Finland’s domestic and foreign affairs. For us to say otherwise would offend our Finnish hosts.

We were each handed a copy of the Finnish-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (FCMA) signed in 1948. The treaty is frequently referred to in English by its Finnish initials YYA. The treaty was signed after World War II during which Finland had fought on the side of Germany against the USSR 1941-1944. Finns during the Cold War era pointed to this treaty when outsiders questioned Finland’s independence. The treaty specifically stated that Finland was not a part of the Soviet alliance system. While not a formal military alliance, the treaty called on Finland to forestall any outside attack on the Soviet Union through Finland. For the Soviets, it was a soft military alliance.

The presentation that I experienced exemplified how much in Finnish society had become mediated by Finland’s relationship with the USSR. Even the arrival of some forty or so teenagers from the United States and Canada could not occur without bringing in Finnish-Soviet relations. That the country’s foreign ministry felt it important enough to send to a senior civil servant to talk to a bunch of North American teenagers exemplifies how important it was to have everyone in the country towing the Paasikivi-Kekkonen Line, the name of the country’s official foreign policy.

Much of what was done in Finland the name of Finnish-Soviet relations during the Cold War, especially from the 1960s onward, was not instigated by the Soviet Union. It was done by domestic Finnish elites not so much to keep good relations with Moscow as to strengthen their power and authority domestically. Finland has a long history of using foreigners as a cudgel in domestic politics: the king in Stockholm until 1809, the emperor in St. Petersburg until 1917, the election of a German king in 1918, the Soviet Union, and, more recently, the Somalis in eastern Helsinki as well as the European Union.

More on Finnish—Soviet relations intermittently in future blog posts. I have resolved to keep these posts to around 500 words.