Finland's Cold War Legacy

By Dutton, Edward | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Finland's Cold War Legacy


Dutton, Edward, Contemporary Review


IN his song 'Finland' Monty Python's Michael Palin summarised the country of lakes and forests as 'so sadly neglected and often ignored'. This country of 5.3 million people is the most sparsely populated country in the European Union. Obscure as Finland is, however, most people with any interest in international politics have heard of 'Finlandization'. Coined by the West Germans, the term was used to describe Finland's Cold War policy of remaining neutral but in actuality being strongly oriented towards the Soviet Union and highly compliant with it. The Finish satirical cartoonist, Kari Suomalainen, defined it as 'the art of bowing to the East so carefully that it could not be considered mooning the West'.

Under President Urho Kekkonen (1956-1981) in particular, Finlandization manifested itself in considerable media censorship and limitations--both in law and due to heavy pressure termed 'the almost compulsory national consensus' by Finnish historian Seppo Hentila--on freedom of expression in order not to offend the Soviets or any overt Soviet satellite. Kekkonen has been compared to Marshal Tito by the British historian Anthony James and there is general agreement that the degree of media censorship during the period means that it is at best controversial to regard Finland as a full democracy during the Cold War. Almost 2000 books, deemed critical of the Soviets, were banned as were numerous films including The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 and Born American in 1986. Soviet defectors were sent back as a matter of policy and at Kekkonen's insistence, probably to a less than pleasant fate. Soviet atrocities were not reported, the Soviet Union was not criticised and nationalist groups were heavily curtailed. Most of the former satellite states within the EU are now fully functioning democracies with, essentially, Western standards of freedom of expression. However, precisely because of Finland's nebulous position during the Cold War--a multi-party democracy but with heavy censorship and coercion compared to Western countries, disputably a Soviet satellite but yet maintaining an albeit managed democracy and limited capitalism--Finland has never engaged in the Post-Cold War purges of Communist officialdom or national self-examination that has characterised its Baltic neighbours. Perhaps for this reason, the shadow of Finlandization and the Soviet Union lives on in Finland rendering it far less democratic than its neighbours and indeed far less self-aware.

Finland was colonised by Sweden from the 1100s and ruled by Sweden until 1809, leading to a Swedish-speaking Finns compose five per cent of the population and are generally wealthier and better educated than the Finnish-speakers. From 1809 the country was part of the Russian Empire and it was granted its own Parliament in 1906. The Russian Revolutions of 1917 left a power vacuum in Finland. The socialists and the conservatives fought for control culminating in a four-month-long civil war in which the Whites ultimately triumphed over the Reds. In December 1939, after the Finns had refused Soviet overtures to give-up part of their territory, the Soviets invaded and the Finns managed to hold out against them in what became known as the Winter War before surrendering parts of Karelia and Lapland. In 1941, the Finns launched the 'Continuation War' and managed to win the land back before ultimately being defeated and losing a twelfth of their territory. The Soviets imposed huge war reparations accordingly.

It was against this background that the policy of Finlandization developed, spear-headed by President J. K. Paasikivi (1946-1956) and then by Urho Kekkonen with his pro-Soviet policies. Consequently, there was a not uncommon view in the 1970s, promoted by Kekkonen himself, that Finnish independence was a gift from Lenin and that there would be no Finnish independence were it not for the benevolent Soviet Union. The memory of Soviet aggression prior to the Winter War was suppressed and Kekkonen managed to create a belief that as the Soviets trusted him, the election of anybody else by the Electoral College could lead to an invasion. …

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