May 1999                                

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Was Finnish media silenced by the Soviet Union?

Esko Salminen: The Silenced Media : The Propaganda War between Russia and the West in Northern Europe.
Macmillan 1999.

Book review by Tapani Lausti

Finland in the shadow of the great Russian bear is an intriguing case of a big power attempting to bully the media of a small nation. It was never quite clear how serious the consequences might be for not toeing the line. Was it possible that Moscow’s unhappiness with Finnish media could lead to something more serious than silly meetings where Soviet diplomats waved press cuttings to prove the compliance of Finnish newspapers in sinister Western plots?

Professor Esko Salminen belongs to "the Russians are coming" school of thought. He believes that in the late 70s Finland was drifting dangerously towards ever closer alignment with the Soviet Union, a process helped by various degrees of self-censorship in the Finnish media about Soviet reality.

Salminen quite rightly blames many Finnish politicians for playing the Kremlin card for the sake of their own political gain, thus making it even easier for Soviet diplomats to bully Finnish editors. But there is something tedious about his sombre cataloguing of sinister encounters where Soviet commissars would lecture Finnish editors about the friendship between the two countries. The fact that Salminen believes that all these meetings were stepping-stones to serfdom makes it impossible for him to laugh at the sight of Finns mouthing meaningless platitudes about friendship between the two countries.

Salminen doesn’t consider the possibility that this ‘friendship’ worked the other way around as well. The Soviet leadership had invested too much internationally in a friendly relationship with their small capitalist neighbour to seriously contemplate making Finland part of the Soviet bloc. Salminen still believes that this is what Moscow was after. He writes that the Russians wanted to make Finland "a showcase example of the peaceful transition to socialism, and they appeared to be succeeding in the 1970s".

This kind of analysis obscures the now obvious fact that the Soviet Union was a giant with feet of clay. Some Finnish journalists thought already in the late 70s that the threatening tones of Soviet commissars were mainly hot air. Salminen’s fears of imminent Soviet ‘socialism’ in Finland is curiously similar to Finnish Stalinists’ delusions about approaching revolution.

While collecting material for the book, Salminen interviewed numerous Finnish editors who are now critical of their earlier silence in important matters. He talked to very few journalists and correspondents who actually had to sit down at their typewriters and think what they might get away with while writing about the Soviet Union. This is where the story really comes alive, as a recent documentary on Finnish television proved. In the programme almost all the Finnish correspondents in Moscow during the post-war decades gave honest and detailed accounts of their problems in Moscow.

The value of the programme was not diminished by the fact that it was made by an ex-communist ex-Moscow correspondent of the Finnish Broadcasting Company. During the Brezhnev years, the company used to send Brezhnevite journalists to Moscow because they had good relations with the Soviet bureaucracy.

Finnish broadcasting executives sometimes displayed unnecessary meekness in front of their Soviet counterparts. A visit from the Russian broadcasting authorities occasionally seemed to create a flurry of anxious excitement in the upper echelons of the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

Most working journalists – especially in the news rooms – laughed at such alarmed reactions. Salminen doesn’t seem to be aware of this amusement. He sternly writes: "In fact, a whole generation of Finnish journalists were taught to close their eyes to the realities of socialism, to believe in the propaganda of the socialist countries, and to write about things as one wished them to be." This is as silly as the following sentence: "’Finlandisation’ included the frightened voluntary silence of journalists, and served the expansionist goals of the Soviet Union." These kinds of comments are contradicted even by some of Salminen’s own, more nuanced observations.

It is true that many Finns did believe that the Soviet Union was the future. There was the curious phenomenon of numerous left-wing intellectuals falling blindly in love with their imagined Soviet paradise. Hardly any of them, however, found their way to the news rooms. But they did influence the cultural pages of many newspapers and some sections of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, as Salminen makes clear.

Having highlighted serious problems for the freedom of information in Finland in the post-war decades, Salminen’s general conclusion is less dramatic: Under difficult circumstances, Finnish media didn’t fare too badly. In spite of frequent – and often outrageous – Soviet interference, Finnish media in its circumspect way continually published material which infuriated the Kremlin and also many Finnish politicians who wanted the media to echo official foreign policy.

In spite of its time-warped tone, Salminen’s book is a unique chance for the outside world to get some idea of strange goings-on in the Finnish media under Soviet officials’ watchful eyes.

Tapani Lausti worked at the radio news foreign desk of the Finnish Broadcasting Company in 1973-1982 and reported on several occasions from the Soviet Union in 1979-1981. He was the company’s London correspondent in 1983-86.

 See also:

Crisis in Russia: echoes from the past by Tapani Lausti (September 1998)


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