A Northern Paradox: How Finland Survived the Cold War

By James, Anthony | Contemporary Review, March 1994 | Go to article overview

A Northern Paradox: How Finland Survived the Cold War


James, Anthony, Contemporary Review


AFTER the event the debates and the soul-searching begin in earnest. This is the situation in many countries now that the sharp division of Europe into Soviet and Western spheres is receding into the past. There is a strong urge to assess, to re-assess and to understand that period which is loosely called the Cold War, partly, perhaps, because many of the high hopes of 1989 remain frustrated and unfulfilled.

No country is re-examining its history with more painful thoroughness than Finland, which in itself is no doubt a sign of intellectual and moral health within Finnish society. For those with a lifelong interest in Finnish literature and culture like myself, it is a subject of prime importance, for literature and political issues have been so intimately connected in Finland since the 19th century that it is difficult for English-speaking people to comprehend so vital and organic a link. Yet an understanding of post-war Finnish history is also, I believe, crucial to any proper appreciation of the four decades which followed the Second World War in Europe, in a way which is quite out of proportion to Finland's size or the direct influence it has exerted on European affairs. This is because Finland is one of those borderline and borderland countries where rival empires, rival cultures and rival social systems grind against each other like the great tectonic plates which underlie the continents themselves. Much of what was essentially Eastern and essentially Western in the divided Europe of 1945-1989 is illuminated by the fortunes of this small northern country.

For many years there have been two differing and contradictory accounts of Finland's place in Europe and of its relationship to the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1989. According to the first account the Second World War left Finland completely at the mercy of the Soviet Union, but for a variety of reasons, some of them pragmatic, some of them enigmatic, the Russians allowed the Finns to retain their Nordic parliamentary system, but behind the scenes they exerted complete control over the Finnish government, while the Finns in the interests of their survival could only respond with docile compliance. To describe this arrangement the term finlandisation, often used as a term of political abuse, was invented, and at various times hopes were expressed that Eastern Europe might be finlandised instead of being kept under more rigid forms of Soviet control, while fears were voiced that Western Europe would be finlandised if vigilance was relaxed. Even so distinguished a historian as Walter Laqueur(1) leans rather uncritically towards this view of Finland, while Henry M. Pachter(2) insists upon it in statements which are vehement and inaccurate. The finlandisation idea is also the accepted wisdom among serious political journalists(3) and has become the prevailing view of some Finnish historians who now write in a fierce spirit of national self-condemnation.(4)

The other account of Finland's position presents the country as a heroic small nation which, by prolonged struggle with its huge neighbour asserted the right to remain a neutral Scandinavian democracy and maintained that status by the skill and statesmanlike wisdom of the three Finnish presidents since 1944, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, Juho Paasikivi and Urho Kekkonen, men who retained their calm and courtesy even in the face of occasional outbursts of Soviet bullying, bad manners and interfering pressure. According to this account the concept of finlandisation is an invention of those who do not understand Finland's history or are jealous of the Finns' success in living peacefully beside a superpower, or both. This view of Finland is the one favoured by many travel writers and most guidebooks, starting with the works of Wendy Hall and Sylvie Nickels and is presented even in so sensitive an account of the country as Fred Singleton's.(5) It is also the view contained, either by statement or by implication throughout the writings of Finland's longest serving president Urho Kekkonen(6) and was insisted on rather simplistically by some Finnish historians during the 1960s and 1970s. …

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