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.