Courtesy Reuters

Finland Vindicated

Finland and Russia signed a friendship treaty in Helsinki on January 20, 1992, consisting of many clauses, including commercial and financial ones. More significant was the exchange of notes that same day. These certified the cancellation of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed in Moscow on April 6, 1948. That treaty, the result of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, established the limitations of an independent Finnish foreign policy and, indeed, certain conditions of Finnish independence itself. That those limitations proved manageable and flexible was principally due to the moderation and wisdom of successive Finnish governments, including their recognition that—especially for a small nation—an untrammeled independence of foreign policy is a chimera.

Thus in 1992 the last outlines of the ominous shadow of Russian domination of Finland disappeared—75 years after the establishment of an independent Finnish state. It must not be thought that the present treaty was but another by?product of the Russian retreat from central and eastern Europe. Finland’s independence was achieved and secured, bit by bit, by its successive governments over the last fifty years. Long before 1992 the exercise of that kind of Finnish statesmanship was vindicated. This was not always understood in Washington—not by John Foster Dulles, who in 1954 proclaimed that during the Cold War "neutrality" for a nation was impossible and immoral; and not by John Kennedy, who in 1961 said to a Finnish diplomat: "What puzzles us Americans is why the Soviet Union has allowed Finland to retain her independence." There need not have been such puzzlement in Washington, but that is not the theme of this article. Its theme is that of the historical nature and development of Finnish?Russian relations, which should tell us not only some things about Finland but also some seldom recognized things about Russian foreign policy under Stalin.


For nearly two hundred years the relationship between Finland and Russia has been marked by a compound of struggle and compromise—the compromise reluctant and enforced in the worst of circumstances, and realistic and propitious in the relatively best of instances. Its origins go back to the first stage of Finnish independence which, contrary to general belief, occurred not in 1918 but in 1809 and which was made possible by the Russian tsar. Before 1809 Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden. Having defeated Sweden, Tsar Alexander I acquired Finland, but made it an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian empire.

There were positive elements in that arrangement. The Grand Duchy of Finland kept the old Swedish administrative system, its legal and cultural institutions and customs. When the martinet tsar, Nicholas I, faced the Polish uprising in 1830?31, he was supposed to have said: "Leave the Finns alone. They have not given us any trouble." During another Polish uprising in 1863 Finnish leaders themselves cautioned their countrymen to avoid "foolish gestures" that would "only hurt Finland without any benefit to the poor Poles." Alexander II treated the Finns well; his statue is preeminent in Helsinki, and parts of that city still retain some of the melancholy charm of the neoclassical imperial architecture of early nineteenth?century St. Petersburg.

Finland enjoyed more privileges than had even Hungary within the Hapsburg dual empire after the 1867 Austro?Hungarian Ausgleich. There was a Finnish parliament elected by universal suffrage as early as 1906. Finnish women were the first in the world to have the right to vote and the right to be elected. Yet, after all was said, Finland was not an independent country. It was subject to sudden Russian whims. Around 1900 a Russian policy to restrict Finnish autonomy began. Finnish resistance against such measures (most of which were erratic and thoughtless rather than brutally and rigorously enforced) coincided with the rise of Finnish nationalism and the final crisis of the tsarist empire. But in 1917 the collapse of the tsarist regime and the subsequent Bolshevik revolution made the full independence of Finland possible. It was declared by a national assembly on December 6, 1917.

History does not repeat itself, but historical conditions do. The relatively moderate treatment of Finland as practiced by the Soviets, including Stalin after World War II, was preceded by the temperate policy of the tsars regarding Finland during the nineteenth century. Thereafter Finnish independence profited as much as it suffered from revolutions in Russia, including the communist one. In 1917 Lenin was the first to recognize the independence of Finland at a time when no Russian nationalist would have. Lenin, of course, had no particular liking for a bourgeois state in Finland. Fortunately for the Finns—and for Europe—Lenin was handicapped by his ideological expectations. He thought that what happened in Petrograd in November 1917 would soon happen everywhere west of Russia. He was proved wrong—in Finland before anywhere else.

A short and cruel civil war between "reds" and "whites" erupted in Finland in January 1918—but in Finland, unlike Russia, the anticommunist whites defeated the reds. The small Finnish army was able to keep incursions by Russian red troops at bay too. Lenin was then forced to recognize, by means of a treaty, the independence of a noncommunist Finland whose frontier, at its closest point, ran but less than thirty miles from Petrograd.

It is here that we must turn, no matter how briefly, to consider the remarkable character and career of Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim. He was no less the savior of a nation than was Winston Churchill in the hour of his nation’s greatest peril. Mannerheim had risen to a lieutenant?generalship in the tsar’s army, with a brilliant record and many unusual accomplishments. But in 1917 his allegiance to the tsar ceased. In December of that year the Finnish senate named Mannerheim commander in chief of the embryonic army of the new state. He defeated the reds in the Finnish civil war.

Yet he disagreed with some leading Finnish political figures. The majority of the Finnish senate was pro?German in 1918; a nephew of the German kaiser was about to become the king of Finland. That summer a German expeditionary force of Jägers arrived to assist the Finnish whites in their struggle against the communists. Mannerheim welcomed the latter (at least temporarily), but he warned the senate against the German connection. Britain and France, not Germany, would win the war, he said. Mannerheim broke with the senate, resigned and went abroad. But when Germany indeed lost the war he was called back to Finland to act as regent. He ran for president but lost in the first Finnish presidential election. In 1933 he received the title of field marshal. During the Second World War he came to the fore, first as commander in chief and then as president, to defend and protect Finland from Russia and Germany, as he had once before in 1918.

Between the two world wars Finland’s situation differed in some ways from that of other east European countries, while it was similar in others. It was different because democracy was more popular and better entrenched in Finland. At the same time Finland, too, was but one of the newly constituted tier of small states geographically situated between a resurgent Germany and the sinister giant state of Soviet Russia. Also most Finns felt less threatened by Germany than by Russia, even during the era of the Third Reich. Nor was Finland entirely immune to the tendencies of radical and ideological nationalism that reached their peak in Finland in the early 1930s—without, however, seriously compromising the functioning of Finnish parliamentary democracy. In any event this palely sunlit period from 1919 to 1939—long in the life of a generation but brief in the history of a nation—came to an end with the beginning of the Second World War, when suddenly the very survival of Finland was at stake.

In August 1939 the Secret Protocol of the Hitler?Stalin pact allotted Finland to the Soviet sphere of interest. The fate of Finland now depended on the designs of the great powers, as in 1807 when the meeting at Tilsit between Napoleon and Alexander led to the Russo?Swedish War and eventually the 1809 transfer of Finland to the domain of the tsar; and as in 1943?45 when the Atlantic democracies chose not to imperil their relationship with Russia by insisting on the conditions of political liberty of east European states after the war.

Despite more than fifty years’ distance and extensive documentary evidence, certain questions about the Hitler?Stalin pact remain. The Secret Protocol used the term "sphere of interest"; the Yalta Declaration on Liberated Europe did not. What both of those arrangements had in common, however, was the absence of a specification of what "sphere of interest" meant. It seems that Hitler was surprised when (except in the case of the division of Poland) Stalin interpreted his "sphere of interest" as actual military occupation and incorporation of territories on the Soviet side of the demarcation line—just as the American and British governments after 1945 found that Stalin was not content with the establishment of Russophile governments in eastern Europe, but would proceed to their complete Sovietization.

That the Russians were interested in certain border revisions was already evident in 1938, when they had thus approached the Finns. When in October 1939 Stalin invited the Finns to Moscow he requested, first of all, a revision of the Finnish?Russian border to where Peter the Great’s frontier had been laid out in 1721. Several times during the negotiations he referred to those tsarist precedents. Marshal Mannerheim himself understood this; he advised a more positive Finnish response to Stalin’s demands than what actually happened. Soon this problem became moot: the Soviet Union attacked Finland, employing such treacherous and fraudulent pretexts that were rare even among the depressing diplomatic brutalities perpetrated by totalitarian states in World War II.

This is not the place to sum up the history and diplomacy of the Winter War, full as that is of complex and interesting details, including the harebrained and hypocritical attempt by the British and French to send a military expedition to Finland, which fortunately came to nothing. The Winter War of 1939?40 lasted three and a half months; the Finns fought well enough to impress Stalin; they lost important portions of their territory but retained their independence.

From the Treaty of Moscow in March 1940 fifteen months passed until the German invasion of the Soviet Union brought a Finnish resumption of the war in its wake. (The Finns, with understandable understatement, refer to that as the Continuation War.) Largely as a response to the tremendous German conquest of western Europe and the extension of German domination over southeastern Europe, Moscow wished to achieve a kind of balance by trying, among other things, to extend its own military and political influence further over Finland. During his visit to Berlin in November 1940 Molotov’s repeated harping on this issue only raised Hitler’s ire. By that time, however, most of the Finnish military and political leaders found that the only great power on whom Finland could depend against Russia was Germany; indeed, after August 1940 the Germans entered into a partly clandestine military collaboration with the Finns.

There are still some questions about the exact sequence of events in June 1941, when war between Finland and the Soviet Union erupted four days after the German invasion of the latter. The resumption of the war against Russia mostly (though not exclusively) to regain lost territories was popular in Finland, as was the alliance with the Third Reich. Yet important Finnish personages, especially Marshal Mannerheim, wanted to make clear that Finland’s war was separate from Germany’s—an arguable proposition, except that, in part because of Mannerheim’s wishes, the Finnish army would not advance beyond certain lines.

Upon Stalin’s insistence Churchill, who had tried to avoid a British declaration of war on Finland, felt compelled to do so a few days before Pearl Harbor. The United States did not go to war against Finland and maintained normal diplomatic relations with Helsinki throughout the war. (Among all of Germany’s allies and associates, only Finland did not conform to the German pattern—among other things, instituting no discriminatory regulations or legislation against Jews.) After Stalingrad, as also desired by the United States, serious Finnish attempts at negotiating a separate peace with Moscow began. The results were indifferent.

In June 1944 the great Soviet offensive westward actually began on the Karelian front, before the Byelorussian and eastern Polish campaigns. As in summer 1918 a last?minute agreement with Germany and the arrival of some German assistance contributed to halt the Soviet advance. But in August, again as in 1918, it became Mannerheim’s task to detach Finland from the German side. President Risto Ryti resigned and Marshal Mannerheim assumed the Finnish presidency. The armistice was signed on September 19, 1944, essentially restoring the 1940 frontier, to which two other important Russian territorial gains were added: Petsamo—Finland’s only port on the Arctic—and a naval base at Porkkala?Udd, close to Helsinki.

There were many other painful conditions. Finland had been defeated. But as the excellent Finnish diplomat and historian, Max Jakobson, put it, "she was not conquered. Apart from Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Finland was the only one of all the European nations involved in the Second World War to avert an enemy occupation. Its social fabric remained intact and the continuity of its political institutions unbroken. In this fact lies an achievement that transcends the conventional meaning of such terms as defeat or victory."

That retrospect is both inspiring and correct. All this turned out to be for the good in the end. Yet no one could know that at the end of the war, when the Russian bear was both triumphant and hungry and when the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States—the former leaning on Finland, the latter five thousand miles away—was about to begin.


Alone among the western neighbor states of the Soviet Union—indeed, alone in the entire eastern half of Europe (save for Greece, the only state with a British and later American military presence after the war)—Finland avoided both Russian occupation and communization. How was that possible? During the most dangerous period between the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, the main factor was the cautious realism inherent in Stalin’s statesmanship; but that, in turn, was inseparable from his appreciation for certain Finnish qualities, including political prudence.

There was in this instance a subtle but significant difference between Stalin and his otherwise entirely obedient minion, Molotov. The latter said in 1940 and on several occasions thereafter that the time for small nations had passed. Stalin was not convinced of that, certainly not in the case of Finland. He was impressed by the military courage and civic stability of the Finns. A remark Stalin dropped at the 1943 Teheran Conference was an early indication of this appreciation; recently opened documents in the Kremlin archives also contain a few significant remarks in that regard, remarks Stalin made in the presence of abashed Finnish communists in 1945. In sum Stalin seems to have believed that while a military subjugation of Finland might be possible, it would not be worth its cost: to swallow Finland may be one thing, but to digest it quite another.

No one, however, could be certain of Stalin’s restraint in 1945, least of all the Finns. Their country was bled white, weakened to a dangerous extent. They were burdened by a very large war indemnity to be paid to the Soviet Union (which they delivered with extreme punctuality). The north of Finland was devastated: according to the armistice agreement, Finnish forces had to participate in driving German troops out of Finnish Lapland toward northern Norway. Nearly half a million Finns fled the Karelian territories annexed to the Soviet Union: their resettlement was another exceptional burden. Nearly one hundred thousand young Finns out of a population of four million died in the war. The communists, together with some leftist allies, had almost one?fourth of the Finnish vote. They had to be part of a coalition government, including the important post of minister of the interior. Still there was President Mannerheim, with his tremendous prestige. He was, however, 79 years old and his health had weakened. In 1946 he was succeeded by another remarkable Finnish statesman, Juho Paasikivi. Throughout his political life Paasikivi had shown a solid understanding of Russia’s strategic interests. He had opposed Finland’s association with Hitler’s Germany. He consequently enjoyed a considerable reputation in Moscow.

But the global political struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union had begun. The Finnish leadership knew this very well. In 1947 they thought that they had better decline the help offered to their impoverished country by the Marshall Plan. Paasikivi’s decision impressed Stalin. "The Marshall Plan was designed to save Europe from communism, but Finland may have saved herself from communism by saying no to the Marshall Plan."

But the crunch was soon to come. By early 1948 American strategy was moving forward from the Marshall Plan in the direction of NATO. At the same time—as a matter of fact, on the same day—when the communist takeover occurred in Czechoslovakia (without even the need of a Soviet armed presence to enforce it), Stalin requested that Paasikivi come to Moscow. The Soviet Union had already concluded mutual assistance treaties with Hungary and Romania (Bulgaria was soon to follow), essential instruments to ensure their complete subordination to the Soviet Union. Now, Stalin wrote, it was Finland’s turn to consider such a treaty.

Paasikivi met this ominous prospect with the ability of a great statesman. Responding to Stalin, Paasikivi suggested that he was not opposed to a treaty, but that he had first to assure the consent of parliament for a delegation to negotiate it. More than a month would pass until that Finnish delegation arrived in Moscow. President Paasikivi stayed in Helsinki. In Moscow Stalin agreed to a compromise—a compromise that, as Stalin himself admitted, was Paasikivi’s version.

Like any other military alliance the treaty curtailed Finland’s liberty of action. But the text did not follow the model of other treaties Stalin had concluded with his east European satellites. The preamble mentioned "Finland’s desire to stay outside the conflicts of interests between the great powers." The word "neutrality" was avoided; but during its ratification debates in the Finnish parliament Paasikivi would use that term, at least on one occasion.

One of the reasons for Stalin’s relative moderation was his view of the Scandinavian military situation. In 1948 the American alliance system was about to include Norway (the only NATO ally that, on its northernmost frontier, directly bordered the Soviet Union). It seems that Stalin had told the Finns, quieta non movere: tell your friends the Swedes not to join the American alliance system, for in that case I would feel compelled to advance my military presence into Finland.

Unlike the autumn of 1940, when Moscow opposed a close relationship between Sweden and Finland—as it turned out, wrongly, in view of Moscow’s own interests—now Moscow had learned its lesson: it could benefit from the geographic complementarity of Sweden and Finland. Also, unlike 1939, Stalin seemed to have little interest in the Finnish communists. In May the communist minister of the interior left his post. In July the communists, having done poorly in the elections, left the government.

Thus in 1948, in that first full year of the Cold War, Finland, by its own efforts, saved itself from communism. Much of the credit for this remains due to Paasikivi and to those Finnish conservatives whom he trained and who would eventually succeed him. He was nearly eighty years old. In 1950 he was reelected for another six years.


It would be wrong to believe that from that time on the independence of Finland was definitely and permanently secured. The year 1948 was a milestone in the development of Finnish?Soviet relations; but it was not a turning point.

The uneasy maintenance of good and proper relations with Moscow involved many matters besides the customary limits of foreign relations. It necessarily involved self?imposed and sometimes government?imposed restrictions on free expression in the press, in publishing and other kinds of communications in order to avoid anything that would irritate Moscow or impel it to present new demands. It involved a scrupulous observance of all trade and economic arrangements with the Soviet Union—even as Paasikivi endeavored to keep Finnish trade from becoming unduly dependent on its neighbor. (Indeed during the last 45 years the volume of Finnish?Soviet trade rarely exceeded 25 percent—Paasikivi’s own benchmark—of total Finnish foreign trade.) It also involved in 1945?46 an unjust and unlawful act of political appeasement: the trial and conviction of those Finnish political leaders who had led Finland into and during the Continuation War. (There were no executions in Finland; all of those national figures were eventually released before the completion of their terms, some returning not only to private but public life, respected by both the government and nation.)

In foreign policy, of course, the restrictions were obvious. In the United Nations Finland did not vote against the Soviet Union (though on certain occasions it abstained rather than vote along with Moscow’s satellite delegations). Helsinki solved the difficult problem involving recognition of the two Germanies in a unique way: it did not give formal recognition to either, but maintained extensive trade and cultural relations with both. It kept up this practice successfully until 1971, when the Western powers themselves agreed to recognize both German states. During the 1956 Hungarian uprising the Finns had to bite their tongues and make no public expression of support for the Hungarians (as Finnish leaders had advised during the Polish rising in 1863). The Finns knew that their great eastern neighbor could be supersensitive and unpredictable, and that some of the most surprising Soviet actions were motivated by considerations never properly analyzed or perceived by the West. Thus, for example, the United States and the Western powers were surprised when in 1955 Khrushchev announced that the Soviets would return the Porkkala?Udd naval base to Finland. They did not know that one of the Russian reasons was Paasikivi’s confidential commitment that his successors would renew the 1948 Finnish?Soviet treaty for another twenty years. Worse, the Western powers (with the partial exception of Britain) failed to see the emerging pattern of the Soviets’ European policy at that time, parts of which were the return of Porkkala, the Soviet willingness to evacuate eastern Austria and Khrushchev’s reparation of the Soviet break with Yugoslavia.

The Finns were aware of Khrushchev’s idea of a neutral zone across Europe—separating the Warsaw Pact and NATO—comprising Finland, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and perhaps even the two Germanies, or at least one of them. The Western powers were not. That an American and Soviet disengagement from the middle of Europe was a definite possibility—indeed that it had already begun, as in the case of Austria—was dismissed by Washington and Bonn. As a matter of fact it was hardly noticed by people in the West (one exception being George Kennan).

When the aged Paasikivi resigned in 1956, Urho Kekkonen succeeded him. He was a less experienced and perhaps more opportunistic politician; his very election was made possible by the support of the communists. In 1962 the Soviets made a rather crude intervention in Finnish domestic affairs: they asserted that Soviet?Finnish friendship depended on Kekkonen’s reelection to the presidency. Kekkonen may have been less dignified and restrained than Paasikivi in his assertions of a special Finnish relationship with the Soviet Union. Yet in essence Kekkonen followed the main line of the Paasikivi (or even the Mannerheim?Paasikivi) policy. Considering that these three national leaders could hardly have been more different in their respective backgrounds and personalities, that alone is an illustration of a congealing national consensus.

On two occasions—1961 and 1978—the Soviets pressured the Finnish government to extend Soviet military coordination with Finland—that is, to change the balance of Finnish?Soviet relations in Moscow’s favor. The 1961 crisis was the more serious of the two. It was in part the result of a few incautious remarks about eastern Europe and the Baltic by the influential German politician Franz?Josef Strauss. Ironically it was Strauss, too, who a decade or so later coined the word "Finlandization." Soon that term became current in western Europe and the United States. It suggested an ominous advance of Soviet influence, whereby the Soviets would permit the continuation of the economic and political freedoms of certain countries—perhaps even including many west European states—in exchange for restrictions on their independence, especially in matters of foreign policy. That use of "Finlandization" turned out to be nonsense, as it was nonsense from the beginning. Finland’s relationship with the Soviet Union was unique; it was not a precedent; it was meant for Finland alone.

As early as 1955 it began to appear to some Soviet leaders (Khrushchev, for example) that the Soviet Union’s relationship with a democratic Finland was potentially less dangerous than its relationships with seething and potentially explosive satellites. Thirty years later Mikhail Gorbachev came to understand that fully. Among his reforms in Soviet foreign and domestic policies, perhaps the most important and most lasting was acceptance of the "Finlandization"—not of western but of eastern Europe, completed in 1989.

As early as 1980 Finnish leaders began to perceive that events in Poland and the uncertain Russian reaction thereto were leading to profound changes in the Soviet position in eastern Europe. In 1982 two significant events in Finland suggested a change. For the first time some people (mostly intellectuals) openly challenged the validity and usefulness of the renewal of the 1948 treaty—that is, of the special Finnish?Russian relationship. Also in 1982, for the first time (Kekkonen had left the presidency for reasons of health) the president?elect, Mauno Koivisto, was from the Social Democratic Party, a party often opposed by Moscow in the past. But Koivisto, too, made it very clear that he was not about to abandon the foreign policy of the Mannerheim?Paasikivi?Kekkonen pattern that by now had become a Finnish tradition.

Nor did Finnish leaders and people indulge in thinking that Russia’s troubles were simply Finland’s opportunity. During the convulsions within the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991, Finnish?Russian relations remained unvexed. When in January 1992 the new Treaty of Friendship was complemented by the exchange of notes terminating the 1948 treaty, the last remnant of restrictions on an independent Finnish foreign policy were formally removed. The "Finlandization" of Finnish foreign policy of the last 47 years was finally vindicated.


In the history of nations (as in that of every human being) continuity is as important as change. If the 1948 treaty was a milestone rather than a turning point, so was that of 1992. Long before its signing the present character and situation of Finland—democratic, Scandinavian and Western—were solidly established. Long after its signing the principal problem and task of Finland will be to maintain mutually acceptable relations with its eastern neighbor, no matter what kind of government exists in Moscow.

But the very texture of history is changing. The main danger to Finland (as to many other countries) is no longer the incursion of a large foreign army across its frontiers. It is the incursion of an untold and uncontrollable number of migrants. The proximity of Finland to western Eurasia and the length of its frontiers aggravate this problem. Forerunners of such a migration—a constant and probably increasing trickle of unregistered migrants from the erstwhile Soviet Union—have already begun to trouble the authorities of a country that otherwise maintains one of the strictest immigration quotas in Europe.

The problem of Finland’s economic well?being is more evident. The danger in the recent past was that of too much trade with Russia; now the danger is that of too little. Change, yes, but continuity in essence: in both cases the problem is Finland’s dependence on trade with Russia. Because of the uncertainties prevailing in Russia, Finnish trade with Russia has suddenly fallen to a low level, leading to all kinds of consequences, including unemployment. Finland’s eventual association with the European Community will come about, a goal toward which Helsinki proceeds with careful deliberation; but many years will pass until the benefits of such association may balance the losses that Finland now incurs because of the sharp decline of its trade and commerce with Russia.

Their historical experiences seem to make the Finnish people take the long view of their relationship with Russia. No emotional sympathy binds them to Russians, whose civilization to them is largely alien. (Compared to the number of Finns who learn English, those who learn Russian are almost infinitesimal.) Yet they know better than to ignore a consideration of their great eastern neighbor. In 1918 their future depended on the rapidly evolving three?way struggle between communist Russia, Germany and Britain; in 1939?40 and again in 1944?48, with the United States eventually replacing Britain, but still very far away. Their closest and most dangerous neighbor was Russia. Will German power—not forever and not necessarily restricted to economics—replace the dominant presence of Russian power in the Baltic, sooner or later? We, as well as the Finns, cannot tell. Yet there is reason to believe that they know something akin to what Bismarck had once put into words: that Russia is never as strong—or as weak—as it seems.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.


Close We are offering free and open access for a short period of time. Read more about why we are doing this.