Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

All of the President's Historians: The Debate over Urho Kekkonen

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

All of the President's Historians: The Debate over Urho Kekkonen

Article excerpt

SELDOM DOES A HISTORIOGRAPHICAL DEBATE enter the discourse of popular music. Such though was the case in 1991 when the Finnish singer Juhani "Juice" Leskinen recorded the song "Siniristilippumme" [Our Blue and White Flag]. Like many of Leskinen's songs, this piece examines the Finnish condition. He sings about a country plunged into economic depression as well as caught between an integrating western Europe and a disintegrating eastern Europe. Many of the truths and beliefs of a country comfortably isolated during the Cold War no longer applied. Leskinen proclaims this Finnish twilight of the idols in the song's opening line: "Kekkonen hiihti! Kekkonen kalasti! Nyt se on Kekkonen riisuttu alasti" [Kekkonen skied, Kekkonen fished, and now Kekkonen is stripped bare].

When Urho Kaleva Kekkonen resigned as president of the Republic of Finland in the fall of 1981, few Finns could remember a time when he was not a leader much less the leader of the country. From his days as a student activist in the 1920s, Kekkonen's public career spanned seven decades. In 1956, he won the Finnish presidency by the narrowest of margins. He then held the office for the next quarter-century during which he faced the challenge of leading a small democracy in the shadow of the Soviet Union.

Over the last two decades, historians have reevaluated Kekkonen's presidency. In terms of its duration, impact on the historical profession, and resonance with the general public, this scholarly debate ranks among the most significant in the annals of historical scholarship in Finland. This debate has been fueled not so much by theses and interpretations as by a struggle over and for credibility. Throughout this debate, the credibility of participating scholars, primary sources, and President Kekkonen himself has been questioned.


The central figure in this debate has been the historian Juhani Suomi. In September 1986, the first installment of his eight-volume biography of Kekkonen appeared just days after the president's death. This first installment covers the years 1936-1944, during which Kekkonen started his long career in national politics. Even before the book reached stores, Suomi's credibility as a scholar of Kekkonen was questioned on several counts. He was the only scholar with unlimited access to two important archival collections: President Kekkonen's own papers as well as relevant classified material from the Finnish Foreign Ministry. Suomi owed these privileges to both his personal ties to Kekkonen and his position as a senior civil servant in the Foreign Ministry. He gave his research an even more opaque veneer by publishing it without source citations. He and his publisher did so in the hope of reaching the broadest possible audience, that is, maximizing sales (Suomi, Myrrysmies 10-3).

In an editorial in Historiallinen Aikakauskirja, one of Finland's leading historical journals, Jukka-Pekka Pietiainen spoke for many historians in confronting Suomi's "monopoly" over the Kekkonen papers. Pietiainen called for the deposition of all presidential archives in the State Archives (now the National Archives). He presented as a model the case of Kekkonen's immediate predecessor, J.K. Paasikivi, whose diaries in the National Archives remained closed to all until 1985. Not only were the rules fair for all scholars, but also interested researchers were helped by the publication of the first volume of Paasikivi's diaries in the same year, Pietiainen echoed the criticisms of many reviewers by decrying the decision to publish the work without source citations. Their absence placed longer and darker shadows over the book's credibility, since the book's findings could not be scrutinized easily even if the archives were open to all scholars. Moreover, Pietiainen condemned Suomi's complicity in the decision as "hammastyttavaa alistumista kaupallisiin intresseihin yliopiston dosentilta" ("Arkistojen" 2) [an astounding submission to commercial interests by a university docent] (see Paasikivi; Polvinen, "Paasikivien" 52-3). …

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