September 1998

Letter from the editor

Crisis in Russia: echoes from the past

by Tapani Lausti

As one of the journalists who had to try to understand the nature of Finland’s big eastern neighbour in the 1970s, I was often surprised how widely people accepted the view that the Soviet Union was a stable entity – in spite of all the evidence against such an assumption. After the implosion of the Soviet Union we seem to be witnessing a new misconception: a belief in the possibility of imposing some form of instant capitalism on Russia. In my view, this belies a poor understanding of both the history of capitalism and the history of Russia. But that is a long story and will surely be the subject of many future debates.

Not surprisingly, much of the recent political literature in Finland touches in one way or another the tortured relationship with the Soviet Union. The two books I acquired during a recent visit to Finland may be random samples but turned out to be fascinating reads because of their contrasting attitudes to those strange years when some Finnish politicians were willing to act as second-rate Soviet commissars, thus instigating often bizarre political games.

Lasse Lehtinen, whom some readers will remember as the press counsellor of the Finnish Embassy in London during the 80s, laughed his way through many politically awkward and/or ridiculous situations when dealing with representatives of Communist-run countries. Some incidents are described in his two-part memoirs (Luotettavat muistelmat – Reliable memoirs, published by WSOY 1996, 1997). As a novelist and journalist, Lehtinen saw the funny side of kowtowing in front a powerful neighbour. He also wrote a hilarious book on Finnish businessmen’s adventures in the Soviet Union. In his memoirs, Lehtinen jokes about his Russian shadows (the Soviet bureaucracy had a tendency to assign agents to watch over Finnish public figures, the concept known as 'the Russian-at-home'). They seem to have realised that Lehtinen was an ideologically hopeless case. He was never invited to the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki.

The other book takes the same problems much more seriously. It is the biography of Max Rand (by Jorma Hentilä and Hannu Pöppönen, publ. Otava 1997), a brilliant essayist and journalist-broadcaster who died prematurely in 1992. While Lehtinen is fond of mocking leftist intellectuals, especially those who became rabid apologists of the Soviet system, Rand’s career is an example of a much more complex attitude to latter-day Stalinism than has been allowed for in the current frenzy of hind-sight wisdom.

During the debate it has been claimed that "a whole generation of Finnish journalists was taught to close their eyes on socialist reality". This sort of claim verges on the ridiculous. Anybody who worked in the Finnish newsrooms in the 70s and 80s knows that life was more complex than that. As for Max Rand, whatever shortcomings he may have had as an observer, he was too honest a journalist and human being to allow peace of mind on unpleasant issues. On the other hand, his critical attitude never killed off his keen interest in the real cultural life of the countries run by soulless Communist bureaucrats. Some people never forgave him this interest.

So the debate goes on. Thus far it has been strangely one-sided. Everybody is supposed to explain what their attitude towards the Soviet Union was. For geo-political reasons this is understandable. But there is a peculiar underlying supposition that everything the West was up to during the Cold War, was somehow by definition alright.

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