Magazine article History Today

Playing the Blame Game: Finland and the Soviets: Ed Dutton Looks at How the Experience of Finland during the Period 1945 to 1989 Has Led to a Historical Identity Crisis for the Nation That Remains Unresolved

Magazine article History Today

Playing the Blame Game: Finland and the Soviets: Ed Dutton Looks at How the Experience of Finland during the Period 1945 to 1989 Has Led to a Historical Identity Crisis for the Nation That Remains Unresolved

Article excerpt

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Dealing with its post-war past has been especially fraught for Finland. Unlike almost every other country in Europe, in the 'us and them' world of the Cold War it was never exactly clear where Finland stood. Though this small, peripheral nation protested 'neutrality,' during the 1960s and 1970s it appeared to be so compliant with the Soviet Union as to be independent only on paper.

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finnish historians found themselves liberated. After the censorship of the Cold War era--when criticising the Soviet Union or Finland's stance towards it could get you ostracised or even prosecuted--they could finally start to explore the period with a critical eye. This led to an impassioned debate over Finland's Cold War.

Finland was ruled by Sweden until 1809 and then by the Russians before independence in 1917. A Romantic Finnish-nationalist movement, popular among both the peasantry and the elite, developed under Russian rule. With independence came civil war, portrayed by the 'White' victors as a battle for independence from the Soviet Union, with the enemy 'Reds' (mainly the industrial working-class) accused of seeking to make Finland part of the USSR. A dominant narrative was born. Finland had struggled to be tree of Russian oppression to become an independent nation. Up until the Second World War nationalist movements, such as the Academic Karelia Society (which advocated a 'Greater Finland' encompassing all the areas, including those of the USSR, where Finnic languages were spoken and of which the future president Urho Kekkonen was a member), were influential among the Finnish elite.

But everything changed when war broke out. In 1939 the Soviet Union demanded that Finland give-up parts of Lapland and Karelia. When it refused, the Soviets invaded and, in what became known as the 'Winter War', the Finns, hugely outnumbered, held out for longer than expected. Ultimately they lost and were forced in early 1940 to evacuate 10 per cent of their population, but in the Continuation War (1941-44) they took the land back before losing it again and having to pay the Soviet Union substantial reparations.

Finland's postwar policy became one of appeasement. The Paasikivi-Kekkonen line, as it was named after the two successive presidents who pursued it, sought cooperation with their giant neighbour while also working with the West. Narratives of the period stressed that Finland was 'neither Eastern nor Western' or that it was 'partially Eastern'. The Academic Karelia Society was banned as 'Fascist'. In Kekkonen's words, 'we see ourselves as physicians, able to stand objectively outside historical conflicts and offer sage advice to both sides.' But it was under his presidency (1956-81) as leader of the Agrarian League (later the Centre Party) that the 'official history' began to mutate: Russia was a historical friend of the Finns; independence in 1917 became seen as a gift from Lenin; Finland had provoked the Winter War with its nationalist bellicosity; Kekkonen, having earned the trust of the Soviet Union, must remain in power or Finland would risk falling out of favour and losing its independence. The country was now seen as so co-operative with its neighbour as no longer to be independent. In 1961, a West German academic termed this submissive condition 'Finlandisation'. Elements of it appear deep-rooted: in 2006, a Green Party MP was reprimanded by the speaker of parliament for criticising democracy in Putin's Russia.

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The historian Seppo Hentila, writing in 2008, argued that the Cold War era was a 'wound in Finland that is yet to heal'. Had an international crisis taken place during that time, he argues, the country would have been squarely under Soviet influence in terms of its response. Though Finland remained a multi-party democracy, by the 1970s, Kekkonen's power over the media and parliament was so tight that the reality of its democracy was called into question in the West. …

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