16 September 2008

Finland vs. Estonia vis-à-vis Russia

Finland's President Tarja Halonen recently accused Estonia of being "hypersensitive" to Russia and thereby provoking it. David McDuff, a writer and translator who blogs at A Step At a Time, provides some interesting background on Finland's history of severe compromise in its relations with Russia, relations that defined the neologism 'Finlandization'.
I began to visit Finland - exclusively on business connected with literary translation - during the early part of Koivisto’s presidency, and I can still remember the atmosphere that prevailed in the country at the time. While a relative freedom in social, economic and cultural life was noticeable everywhere, so that if one wanted to, one could imagine oneself to be much further West in Europe, in matters that had anything to do with the Soviet Union, a grim, sarcastic silence and unwillingness to discuss Soviet-related issues were the order of the day. While there was certainly more freedom than there was across the water, in Soviet-occupied Estonia, it was impossible to ignore the constraints that existed in Finnish society where Moscow was concerned. Perhaps because most of my activity in Finland was related to literature and translation, I avoided some of the more intense disagreements that could have arisen between my points of view and those of my hosts. My background in Russian studies, and the time I’d spent in Moscow as a post-graduate research student, tended to interfere now and then, however. I can still remember one or two incidents. For example, at that time, Koivisto’s Soviet Union policy included the long-established practice of returning Soviet defectors to the USSR. On a day when an anti-US and anti-Israel demonstration was being held in Helsinki, I happened to have conversation with a Finland-Swedish poet who much later on became a minister in the government of Paavo Lipponen. Incautiously, I mentioned the subject of Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and asked if Finland would also return them to Russia if they appeared in Finland. This provoked an outburst of violent anger from my interlocutor, and I decided not to raise any more such questions with him or with anyone else I met, as I was in Finland on an official invitation.

Many years later, I read about some of what had really transpired among Finland’s media and opinion-forming circles during the 1960s, 70s and early 80s in Esko Salminen’s Vaikeneva valtiomahti (The Silent Estate?) and felt that most of my suspicions were confirmed. Finlandization and “self-censorship” really were a important part of Finland’s cultural and political identity in those decades after the Second World War. Now the Finnish politician Erkki Aho has reviewed a recent book by the historian and political analyst Juha Seppinen, entitled Neuvostotiedostelu Suomessa 1917-1991 (Soviet Intelligence in Finland 1917-1991) which deals with the subject of Finland’s relations with Russia and the Soviet Union throughout most of the 20th century (I reached the link through Marko Mihkelson’s blog). The book also lists details of the meetings and contacts many Finnish politicians and public figures had with members of the Soviet security and intelligence services.

Perhaps at least part of the root of the problem in Finland can be traced back to the Finnish Civil War of 1918, when the forces of the Social Democrats (referred to as the “Reds”), who were supported by the Bolsheviks in Russia, fought with the troops of the Conservatives (known as the “Whites”), supported by Imperial Germany. The degree to which this conflict permeated virtually all areas of Finnish life cannot be exaggerated. It even affected the most recondite literary circles: the Dadaist poet Gunnar Björling became involved on the White side, and hid a White telegraphist in his basement room in Red-occupied Helsinki throughout the entire four months of the war.
A Step At a Time is a good place to keep up on regional sources on Russia's relations with Chechnya, Georgia, and its Baltic Near Abroad.


Floridan said...

I'm always amused when a writer describes the reaction to thusly: "This provoked an outburst of violent anger from my interlocutor..." Did the unnamed poet hit Mr. McDuff?

Trivial aspects aside, I would say that not antagonizing the superpower next door is a fair exchange for "relative freedom in social, economic and cultural life." One has to look no farther than Cuba to see what can happen to small nations that irritate the giants in the neighborhood.

The Soviet Union's collapse was not delayed ten seconds by Finland's "grim, sarcastic silence."

Finally, I have been to Helsinki (albeit for a very short stay) and I would be interested in what Mr. McDuff had in mind when he chose to use the word "relative" to modify "freedom." Relative to what?

Anonymous said...

This person must have been Claes Andersson (from communist party)... The only poet in the cabinet, that I am aware of.

Apologies, as he has not always been entirely stable, as he himself reveals in his memoirs.