Finland Once Shaped Itself to Accomodate Soviets -- Now What?

December 08, 1991|By ANTERO PIETILA | ANTERO PIETILA,Antero Pietila, an editorial writer for The Sun, is a former editor for the Finnish newspaper Aamulehti.

HELSINKI, FINLAND — Helsinki, Finland. -- As the darkness of the Nordic winter sets in, more and more Finns are realizing they have never experienced a fall quite like this. Certainties of life, it seems, are slowly eroding.

Not since the end of World War II, when defeat forced Finland to reach a political accommodation with its enemy, the neighboring Soviet Union, has the country been involved in such a painful self-examination. The disintegration and chaos of the Soviet Union has wiped out one-fifth of Finland's foreign trade, contributing to the highest unemployment rate since the 1940s. Giant shipyards, textile and shoe factories now stand idly, rusting in the wind.

The collapse of communism has also lead to a total re-evaluation of Finland's post-war political leaders. The role and conduct of no one is under a more merciless scrutiny than that of Urho K. Kekkonen. He was Finland's president from 1956 to 1981 and was a major force in politics for half a century.

A few years ago, a KGB defector claimed that Mr. Kekkonen -- whom he did not name directly -- was a Soviet agent of influence. Few people in Finland took that accusation seriously.

But now, Alexei Adzhubei, Nikita S. Khrushchev's son-in-law, who was editor of Izvestia and a member of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee at the time, has made other shocking allegations. According to him, the Kremlin manufactured a major political crisis in Finno-Soviet relations at Mr. Kekkonen 's request to assure his re-election.

Mr. Kekkonen's rule overlapped with the reign of Leonid I. Brezhnev, a pushy and pompous Kremlin leader whose 18 years power fossilized the Soviet Union. Both liked to throw their political weight around, both liked a personality cult.

The two got along famously, disappearing regularly into the Siberian wilderness on boozy bear hunts. In those days, the Soviet Union still seemed to be in economic ascendancy. Finland benefited, signing profitable barter trade contracts which enabled it to provide its 5 million people one of the most pampered lifestyles in the world.

And what a lifestyle it is!

In the 1960s, I worked for Aamulehti, the second-largest morning paper in Finland. When I visited its new printing plant recently, the prosperity was striking: two tennis courts, an Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool and fully equipped gym for employees. (Those facilities are increasingly empty, I was told, but the company's golf memberships are in heavy demand).

Most every one at Aamulehti has six weeks of vacation in the summer and one or two weeks in the winter. And when employees return from vacation, they are welcomed with a negotiated bonus to ease the pain. Meals in the company cafeteria are subsidized, of course.

Aamulehti is not exceptional in its employee benefits. Many banks even operate vacation villages or ski lodges for their workers. For its part, the state provides free health service for everyone. Unemployment compensation is given in proportion to the salary of the job lost.

All this was bankrolled by a spectacular economic boom that was largely fueled by Finland's lucrative Soviet trade. (Ironically, that Soviet trade also financed Finland's expansion to the West because it made possible heavy investments in high technology).

The price for all this, though, was "Finlandization." Originally coined by a West German right-wing politician, the term accused Finland of political cowardice and unnecessary co-optation by the Soviet Union. Finnish leaders rejected that term, saying they were following a principled policy of neutrality in their dealings with the East and the West.

As scholars have begun systematically re-evaluating Finland's postwar policy, it has become clear that the West German definition was accurate. During the Kekkonen rule, Finnish politicians and media began kowtowing to Soviet wishes. Books, articles and films critical of the Soviet Union were suppressed. The electronic media and the school system began a pro-Soviet indoctrination. If the Soviet Union was criticized, that criticism had to be balanced artificially.

"The mechanism of Finnish self-censorship led to such remarks in Soviet coverage that a Muscovite has to stand in line for hours lTC every day for food and other essentials but, on the other hand, many murders are committed in New York every day," veteran editor Simopekka Nortamo observed recently.

When the bubble of communism burst and the Soviet Union collapsed, many Finns realized they had swallowed and lived a lie. Every day seems to bring new revelations about the extent of that national self-deception.

Politicians once preaching eternal friendship with Soviets -- and they were the majority -- are somewhat shellshocked now that reformists are in power on the other side of the border and the mindless mismanagement of Communists is officially uncovered. But being politicians, most of them will recover.

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