The Nature of Finnish-Russian Relations

Finland-Russia FlagBy Masha Gessen

Harper’s Magazine

Finns find it difficult to talk about the Winter War. Its history—both the official version in the schoolbooks and the unofficial version recalled by the older generation—is unsettled and unsettling. In November 1939, three months after signing a pact with Nazi Germany, the Soviets attacked Finland. Unlike the other countries whose land the USSR grabbed that year, Finland resisted fiercely. Despite the Red Army’s clear advantage—it had far more men, planes, and tanks—the war raged through the winter. The Western powers were still pondering whether to aid Finland when the Soviets stopped fighting in March and signed a peace treaty that let the USSR keep 11 percent of what had been Finnish territory.

In the summer of 1941, when Germany attacked the USSR, Finland took up arms against Moscow once again. This conflict is officially called the Continuation War—a sequel, that is, to the first winter struggle against Soviet aggression—but it unofficially embarrasses the Finns, since it means they fought alongside Nazi Germany until the end of World War II.

A period of fear, shame, and uncertainty followed. Finland opted out of the Marshall Plan and, later, NATO, making nervous overtures toward the Soviet Union, signing bilateral agreements but resisting pressure to join the Warsaw Pact. Under President Urho Kekkonen, who was first elected in 1956, the country developed a schizophrenic persona that straddled parliamentary democracy and Soviet-inflected authoritarianism. Kekkonen convinced the Finns that he alone could keep the USSR at bay—and as a result, he ran the country for a quarter century, seven years longer than his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev.

Winter WarThroughout this era, Finland avoided anything that might wake the sleeping bear. The first volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was not, for example, published in Finland (the Swedes ultimately supplied their neighbors with a Finnish translation), and the film based on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was kept out of the theaters until two years after the Soviet regime had collapsed. In Finnish classrooms, the story of the Winter War was softened beyond recognition. When Finland signed a free trade agreement with the European Economic Community in 1973, it signed a similar one with the USSR—an absurd gesture, given that nation’s planned economy, but a delicate bit of diplomacy. This policy of concerted appeasement was known as Finlandization, a term coined in Germany and taken in Finland, at least at the time, as an insult.

Now that the bear has stirred, the concept has made a sudden reappearance. Writing in the Financial Times in February 2014, when Russia was annexing Crimea, Zbigniew Brzezinski declared that the “Finnish model is ideal for Ukraine.” The next month, Henry Kissinger sounded the same note in a Washington Post piece, arguing that Ukraine should “pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland”—i.e., tiptoeing deference to its powerful neighbor. To much of the Finnish intelligentsia, this use of what they consider a shameful period in their history as a policy prescription has only added insult to injury.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture 1: Flag_of_Finland.svg: see File:Flag of Finland.svg#filehistory Flag_of_Russia.svg: see File:Flag of Russia.svg#filehistory derivative work: AwOc (Flag_of_Finland.svg Flag_of_Russia.svg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Picture 2:

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