30 September 2004

Historical hallucinations

By Tapani Lausti

One feature of the Finnish post-Cold War debate has been a tendency to exaggerate the threat to Finland's independence posed by the Soviet Union. This phenomenon has again emerged onto newspaper pages in a debate over two new books, one a biography of the late president Urho Kekkonen, one a history of an alleged Stalinist infiltration of Finnish media.

According to press reports, historian Jukka Seppinen, who earlier worked for the Finnish foreign ministry, claims in his book Urho Kekkonen — Suomen johtaja [Urho Kekkonen Finland's leader] that the Soviet Communist Party twice tried to get power in Finland into the hands of Finnish communists, first in the winter of 1970-71 and again in 1976-77. Seppinen claims that the Russian communists planned to realise their aim by supporting a Popular Front government which would then lead the way to communist power.

Professor Esko Salminen, on his part, claims that the so-called minority communists — those loyal to Moscow — wanted a "total revolution which would have meant the destruction of basic Finnish values on all levels". In his book Viestinnällä vallankumoukseen [With media to revolution], Salminen tries to demonstrate how "the new left" since the late 1960s aimed to break the structure of the Finnish press and take control of leading media. Journalists were allegedly brain-washed, especially at Tampere University. (Salminen has an odd way of using the concept "new left": it has not normally been used to describe communists; on the contrary, at least in Western Europe, it has meant the anti-communist left.)

Having worked at the time as a journalist and broadcaster in Finland, I find this all questionable. First, the politics. I think the idea of a quasi-imminent revolution is an ideological hallucination. Many pro-West writers relish the idea that they have supposedly escaped from Soviet tyranny. Yet even if the Russians had had all kinds of crazy plans, putting them into action would not have been possible without heavy repression in Finland. This would have certainly been very difficult because of the inevitable international condemnation which would have ensued.

I can do no better than quote at length the current Foreign Minister, Erkki Tuomioja, who was in the thick of politics already at the time. He does not believe that there was a possibility of a communist revolution: "To support this view, allusions have been made to the Soviet Union's refusal to acknowledge Finland's policy of neutrality, the support given by the Soviet Communist Party to the minority communist faction and especially a certain kind of revolutionary rhetoric adopted during the short term in office of ambassador Aleksei Beljakov. It is a different matter, however, whether the pressure on Finland aimed not only to draw our country into the Soviet sphere of influence and bolster the communists and other pro-Soviet forces in Finland, but also to achieve a transfer of power to communists. As someone who participated in the politics of the time, I cannot believe this — and it is a question of belief as there is no strong proof — no matter how scary the bullying of the minority communist faction at its worst may have seemed." ("Kekkosesta raskassoutuisesti", Erkki Tuomioja's Home Page, 20 September 2004)

In a review of the last volume of Kekkonen's diaries, Unto Hämäläinen writes: "Luckily for the aging president it was realised in Moscow that it would not serve the interests of the Soviet Union to pull the reins too tightly. [Vladimir] Stepanov was withdrawn from his post in the summer of 1979. (...) A familiar man returned to the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki: KGB general Viktor Vladimirov, who had greatly helped Kekkonen in the Presidential election of 1956. Vladimirov calmed the situation down: there was no need to fear a revolution, or joint military exercises. The definitions of neutrality remained unchanged. Of course Vladimirov meddled in Finnish affairs but he was tactful. Finns were quite used to it." ("President Kekkonen and his successful balancing act", Helsingin Sanomat, International Edition, 28 September 2004)

As to the Stalinist infiltration of the media, I have in the past criticised Esko Salminen's book Silenced Media: The Propaganda War between Russia and the West in Northern Europe (Macmillan 1999). (See "Was Finnish media silenced by the Soviet Union?", Eagle Street, May 1999) The title of the book was already questionable. To use the word "silenced" to describe admittedly sometimes serious avoidance of material critical of Soviet reality is silly. Most Finns still had a realistic picture of Soviet society. Only true believers, i.e. minority communist faction, maintained illusions about a "socialist" paradise behind the eastern border.

It is true that there were quite a few pro-Soviet fellow-travellers among Finnish journalists. I can also understand that many non-communist students at Tampere University had unpleasant experiences as the pressure to conform to pro-Soviet attitudes turned ugly. The editor of the regional newspaper Kaleva, Risto Uimonen, writes how disgusting a place the university was for those who would "not agree to join the crowd waving a red flag and didn't waste their time reading Lenin's collected works but wanted to think with their own brain and use their time to study". ("Taistolaiskritiikki avaa uudelleen vanhat haavat", Kaleva, 19 September 2004)

However, Uimonen describes the years in question as full of evil and dangerous potential. He points out that from Seppinen's eye-witness evidence we now know that Stepanov once said that it is time to stop all talk of Finnish neutrality. Uimonen adds that if we had known the everything which now has come to daylight, we would have been in a deep state of shock. ("Tiesimme paljon mutta kuitenkin kovin vähän", Kaleva, 26 September 2004)

Perhaps so, but disturbing inside information can also lead to exaggeration of the potential consequences of the Soviet Union's, as I believe, confused intentions. Unlike Uimonen, I was not part of the small group of political correspondents who had inside knowledge about Kekkonen's struggles with Soviet officials. (I had, however, the interesting experience of covering Kekkonen's last visit to the Soviet Union in 1981.) But during my short stints in Moscow in the late 1970s I never had a feeling that the Soviets would pose a real danger to Finland.

On a personal level, I had a couple of unpleasant experiences with Soviet officials and once the Finnish minority communist newspaper attacked me personally. Some colleagues stopped saying hello because of my critical attitude towards the Soviet Union. But I never had a feeling that something sinister was brewing. I did not believe that Finnish independence was in danger. Neither did I find it too difficult to write fairly openly about the Soviet Union even when reporting from Moscow. Neither did I encounter anything which would make me believe in an imminent communist revolution.

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