5 November 1999                                  


Finland in the 20th century:

From the shadow of Russia to a nation among nations

Max Jakobson: Väkivallan vuodet (Years of Violence), Part One, Otava 1999.

Book review by Tapani Lausti

As the Finnish ambassador to the United Nations in the late 60s, Max Jakobson was present at a Security Council meeting which discussed ways to stop "mini states" from becoming members of the world organisation. The United States representative came up with the idea that no country which had less than one million inhabitants should be let in. As many diplomats were nodding their heads with approval, Jakobson asked to speak. He uttered only two words: "Goodbye Iceland." The question was never taken up again.

The struggle for his own small country's position in the world is at the heart of Jakobson’s new book. It is a fascinating account of Finland’s place in the history of the 20th century, comparable in scope to Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes. Jakobson weaves internal events in Finland together with wider developments in the world. Although the first part ends with events in 1947, in the introduction the author already observes how Finnish membership of the European Union has finally allowed the country to emerge from the shadow of its big Eastern neighbour and become a nation among nations.

Jakobson quotes approvingly one of the leading post-war politicians, President Urho Kekkonen, who described the basic Finnish problem in terms of a borderland country between East and West. The geopolitics of the country allowed outside states to dictate vital Finnish solutions without listening to the country’s inhabitants.

Amongst these outside states, the Russian Empire and its later version, the Soviet Union, were the reality preoccupying Finnish minds. Often the country’s political elite opted for accomodation with Russian and Soviet interests. Jakobson analyses the frame of mind of Finnish politicians who seem to have been unduly loyal to any big power who happened to have the upper hand. Thus the Finns opted for a rather docile attitude towards the Russian Czar, they elected a German king before the German collapse at the end of the First World War turned Finland into a republican road, and – finally – they were ready to renegotiate the Soviet-Finnish friendship pact in the autumn of 1991 when the Soviet Union had already started to disintegrate.

Some of this kowtowing – especially towards Moscow – has since sickened many Finns. Jakobson reminds readers, however, of the positive balance: Finland is one of the five European nations whose democratic parliamentary system has remained intact since the end of the First World War – the others being Britain, Sweden, Switzerland and Ireland. Jakobson describes as one of history’s paradoxes the fact that Finland was the only country where "an arranged marriage" between Soviet security interests and parliamentary democracy was achieved after the Second World War.

A substantial part of the book deals with the extremely complicated events connected with the Soviet-Finnish wars of 1939-1940 and 1941-1944. Jakobson thinks the evidence disproves the once common left-wing claim that the Winter War could have been avoided if Finland had given in to Soviet territorial demands. He writes that history is not a video tape which you can edit afterwards. "One cannot on the basis of the development of relations between Finland and the Soviet Union after the pact of 1948 draw the conclusion that the same result could have been achieved already in 1938. Everything that happened between 1938 and 1948 formed an integral part of the experience, knowledge and emotional impact on which the decisions of Finnish and Soviet political leaders were based in 1948 and since."

Occasionally Jakobson treats his readers to some intriguing encounters with famous personalities of the century. As a newspaper correspondent travelling around the United States in 1952, he bumped into one of the leading actors of the 1917 events in Russia, Alexander Kerensky. He was working at the Hoover Institute in California. Kerensky was 71 years old, but still living in 1917, thinking about all possible "if only" scenarios.

With his own Jewish background, Jakobson is able to give a rare insight into the position of Jews in Finland. At the beginning of the Finnish independence (1917), the few hundred Jews living in the country were in a dangerous position. The revolutionaries of the Civil War of 1918 considered the Jews to be bourgeois, the anti-revolutionaries saw them as Russians. Some fanatic Finnish nationalists were planning a pogrom against the Jews in Vyborg. They saw no difference between Jews and Bolsheviks. During the Second World War, eight Jewish refugees from Germany were extradited and ended up in German death camps. The notoriously anti-semite Finnish secret police was planning to send back another 150 Jewish refugees but this plan was stopped. The Finnish Jews, however, had earned their rights of citizenship by their sacrifices in the Winter War, Jakobson writes.

As this book by Max Jakobson is not available in English, you might be interested in looking up his recent book called Finland in the New Europe, published by Praeger in 1998. The book has a foreword by George Kennan. See a review of this book on our Web pages, Finland's role in Europe subjected to 'realist' analysis.

See also:

Index of back issues

The Finnish Institute in London