Finland, the "Russian question" and socialism

By Hannu Reime

Johan Bäckman (ed.), Entäs kun tulee se yhdestoista? Suomettumisen uusi historia (What about the eleventh? A new history of Finlandization.) WSOY, Helsinki 2001.  700 pp.

In Väinö Linna's classic novel Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) on the Finnish-Soviet War of 1941-44, there is a passage where private Vanhala and corporal Lahtinen are chatting with each other just at the outbreak of hostilities, waiting to be moved to the front. Vanhala, a carefree chap, jokingly repeats the old slogan of right-wing nationalist demagogues that one Finn equals ten pieces of ryssä (a pejorative word for a Russian); to which Lahtinen, a communist and extremely sceptical towards ruling masters of his own country, retorts: Might be true, but what about the eleventh?

This humorous exchange on the arithmetics of military power serves as the title for a thick collection of articles by altogether fifty writers on the relations between Finland and Russia/Soviet Union. The subtitle of the book refers to the so called Finlandisation, a period in Finland's history from after the Second World War up until the break-up of the USSR. These are years during which Finland is said to have been ultimately under Moscow's control, without an occupation and under a parliamentary democratic political system and capitalist market economy with borders open to the West. This is matter of great dispute, and so it's no wonder that the articles in the book are extremely unequal and varied both in their foci and in their analyses and conclusions. There is no consensus on the notion "Finlandisation." For some, Finland is a "success story"; for others most of the public figures in Finland should make confessions not only for their shameless groveling in front of the masters in the Kremlin but also for using the "Moscow card" in advancing their own political careers.

The only consensus

There is, however, one significant question where most of the contributors to this book, as well as people in general, seem to agree. This is the view that the Soviet Union represented socialism, not only socialism in general but socialism par excellence, and that its collapse also meant the collapse of all efforts to build a better society. One seeks in vain any challenge to this widespread but ultimately erroneous view.

Interestingly, this question of the nature of the Soviet Union also echoes corporal Lahtinen's world view. He is one of the most interesting characters in Tuntematon sotilas, a permanent grumbler, a worker who only has elementary school education behind him,  with some poorly digested notions of the "materialism" of modern science, probably acquired in some Marxist study circle, all of which makes him laughable in the eyes of the other rank-and-file soldiers. At the same time, however, Lahtinen belongs to the best fighters of  the whole machine-gun company, and on top of everything, he, a communist, is fighting against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the ranks of the "white" army of Finland, allied with Nazi Germany. Why did most of the class conscious workers in Finland, even the most radical ones among them, choose to fight on the Finnish side, and only a small minority went into hiding or crossed over to the other side? Lahtinen is a very realistic character, not some fictive character of a writer's imagination.


I think that the answer to this question is straightforward and lies in the nature of Stalinism itself. Despite the fact that there were feelings of good-will towards the "fatherland of workers" among the most radical sectors of the Finnish working class, despite the difficulty of getting exact information on what was happening in the East, despite the hard life of a worker in the Finland of the 1930s, and despite bitter memories from prison camps and executions by the Whites of the defeated Reds after the Finnish Civil War of 1918, there must have been among people in these circles a more or less conscious intuition that something was badly wrong in Stalin's "paradise."

There had been bloody purges and disappearences among Finnish communist emigrants in the USSR and especially in the Karelian Autonomous Republic just across the border, and apparently the more sceptical Finnish workers must have wondered how Lenin's closest collaborators could turn out to be spies and saboteurs in the verdicts of Moscow trials. The dot on the i's for many must have been Stalin's unprovoked attack against Finland, and the ensuing Winter War in 1939-40, at the time when Stalin and Hitler were allies, uneasy allies but allies all the same. And whatever one thinks about the circumstances under which Finland allied with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in 1941, there's no doubt that the majority of Finns saw the war of 1941-44 as a continuation of the previous war, jatkosota (Continuation War) as it is called in Finnish historiography.

Nazi and fascist ideologies, on the other hand, seem to have had very little popular support in Finland. Interestingly, what support they had was mainly among the educated upper classes. In Bäckman's book, journalist Olli Ainola calls this phenomenon the preparatory school of Finlandisation. How easy it was for many educated people to turn overnight from the stand of pro-Nazi Germany to one of pro-Stalinist Russia! There were university professors, writers, priests and others among them but very few workers and other "ordinary" people.

Latter-day Stalinism

Despite the intuitive scepticism of even radical workers in Finland towards the Soviet Union, as evidenced not by what they said but what they did, it is at the same time true that criticism of Stalinism from the left has been extremely rare in Finland. Finland was the only country in Western Europe where the bulk of the youth radicalism of the 1960s was channelled into a latter-day Stalinism in the following decade, leading to really grotesque phenomena.

I recently interviewed the Finnish scholar Kimmo Rentola, a specialist in the history of Communism, for a radio documentary, and he said that for some reason, it never has been credible in Finland to be leftist and critical towards the Soviet Union at the same time. I really don't know what those reasons might be but even today many people think that having been a socialist, having been on the left, implied supporting the Soviet Union and its "socialist" order when they existed.

In Bäckman's book, Arto Mustajoki, Professor of Russian language at the University of Helsinki, wonders how it could be that the famous American linguist Noam Chomsky was in disfavour in the Soviet Union although he was a harsh critic of the policies of his own country, the United States. The answer is very simple: Chomsky regarded the Soviet Union as a tyranny as can be seen for example by reading his long essay on the Spanish Civil War, published in 1969 in his first political book American Power and the New Mandarins. There might be other reasons as well connected to Chomsky's scientific work, and they also tell much about the nature of the so called really existing "socialism": Manfred Bierwisch, a brilliant colleague of Chomsky's, was forced to shut down his research centre of linguistics in East Berlin for political reasons!

Left against Stalinism

As the case of Chomsky shows, the rulers of state collectivist societies that all derived ultimately from the Stalinist model, were far more afraid of their leftist, socialist critics than right-wing forces. That's why Stalin tried to export the model of Moscow trials to republican Spain during the Civil War and arrested the leaders of the anti-Stalinist revolutionary party POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) after suppressing a real social revolution, mainly "led" by anarchists. That's why Stalin went to such extremes to kill Trotsky, which his agent finally managed to do in Mexico. That's why the first category of people to be deported by Stalin's secret police from the Baltic countries after their forceful annexation were leftists: Trotskyists, anarchists, social revolutionaries, Mensheviks. That's why Khrushchev and other post-Stalin leaders of the Soviet Union became so nervous when the Hungarian uprising of 1956 turned into a workers' revolution. That's why the first political trials in Poland and Czechoslovakia after the "normalisations" of post-1956 and post-1968, respectively, were against revolutionary socialists Jacek Kuron & Karol Modzelewski and Petr Uhl and his comrades.

These are all important and interesting topics. They were mostly suppressed when the Soviet Union existed. Now that the Soviet Union has been dead for more than a decade, they have faded still more behind a thick veil of propaganda and ignorance. The view that there existed some form of socialism in the former USSR and other state collectivist societies is one of the great propaganda victories of the past 20th century. If the notion "socialism" means anything, it means the extension of democracy from the political sphere to other spheres of society, especially to the economy. In the Soviet Union there was no democracy, neither in politics nor in the economy, so by definition there couldn't be any socialism either. So in no way did socialism collapse with the collapse of the USSR. But this is a question that goes far beyond the specific question of the relations between Finland and Russia.

 30 September, 2001

Hannu Reime is an award-winning broadcaster and journalist. He works as a foreign news commentator at the Radio News of the Finnish Broadcasting Company.         

See also:

Was Finnish media silenced by the Soviet Union?

May 1999


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