September 2000

Kekkonen, Kekkonen, Kekkonen…

Urho Kaleva Kekkonen, the late president of Finland, may be dead, but the controversy about his person and career is alive and well. As the Finns celebrated Kekkonen’s 100th birthday this weekend, the festivities were not purely respectful. Even the Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, allowed himself critical comments about the years of Kekkonen’s rule.

Lipponen emphasised Kekkonen’s skills as a statesman.

“Kekkonen was a great statesman in the real sense of the word. He ackowledged realities but used them to create his own kind of politics.”

Lipponen touched on the controversial use of foreign policy in domestic power struggles. This part of Lipponen’s speech referred to Kekkonen’s way of using his good relations with Moscow to bolster his own dominant position and to keep rivals in place. The Prime Minister thought that Kekkonen could have put a stop to this kind of politics by mid-70s.

“Kekkonen did not want this but the cause for this was also the system itself, the worship of the old man.”

According to Lipponen, the Kekkonen era created a long-lasting culture of extreme carefulness in Finnish foreign policy. As an example he mentioned the postponement of the application of membership in the Council of Europe.

Popular president

However controversial a person Kekkonen was, a poll result published in the regional daily, Aamulehti (3 September 2000), shows that in the eyes of the Finns, he is the most popular president in Finnish history. Of the people interviewed, 80 per cent thought that he was a patriot and 85 per cent agreed that he had saved Finnish independence with his actions.

On the other hand, 60 per cent of the people polled also saw him as political schemer. Aamulehti sums it up by writing that with all his virtues, vices and controversies he was a man the size of the century.

In an editorial, the leading national daily, Helsingin Sanomat (3 September 2000), writes that among other things Kekkonen stopped the Soviet Union’s repeated efforts to draw Finland closer to Moscow’s sphere of power.

“He took care of Finland’s security. He carefully cultivated good neighbourly relations. Kekkonen thought that the more trust there was towards Finland in the Soviet Union, the greater was Finland’s freedom of movement in the West. He won understanding towards Finnish policy of neutrality in the West and the Conference for European Security and Co-operation in 1975 crowned this work.”

“Kekkonen, however, went too far in taking account of the interests of the Soviet Union and used methods which damaged Finnish political culture. As there were in fact no more opponents to Kekkonen’s foreign policy in the 1970s, the borderline between right and wrong among Finnish politicians and even many journalists became unclear.”

Since Kekkonen remained President for a long period of time (1956-1981), he inhabits the consciousness of the Finns in a unique way. This was summed up by Henrik Meinander, a historian from a younger generation. He wrote in Helsingin Sanomat (2 September 2000):

“Whilst celebrating Kekkonen, the Finns once more go through that national epic, the continuation of which is not guaranteed in the framework of the EU. Every citizen at least approaching middle age finds fragments of his or her own life in the documentary films and chat shows about Kekkonen.

“This is why the pictures and associations produced by the Kekkonen fever don’t necessarily form any rational whole or great ideological message. They can be what they seem to be, personal feelings and thoughts that entered the minds of every Finn.”

See also:

From our archive:

The rights of the small to freedom

30 May 2000

Preparing for the Putin era

10 April 2000

Presidential candidates fudge foreign policy dilemmas

21 January 2000

From the shadow of Russia to a nation among nations

5 November 1999

Was Finnish media silenced by the Soviet Union?

February 1999

Neutrality said to leave Finland and Sweden weak in future Europe

November 1998

Finland's role in Europe subjected to 'realist' analysis by Hannu Reime

November 1998

For the first time Finns made their own choice

September 1996


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